Saturday, November 30, 2013

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) & Blood for Dracula (1974)

          Although these two horror flicks are often marketed as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Andy Warhol’s Dracula, the Pop Art icon was only nominally involved in the production of the features. The actual writer-director behind these lurid riffs on the work of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker was Paul Morrissey, who previously made features including Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Heat (1972) for Warhol. Flesh for Frankenstein is more noteworthy than Blood for Dracula, because it’s hard to think of another X-rated ’70s horror movie that gleefully presents incest, mutilation, and necrophilia in 3D. And if Flesh for Frankenstein is ultimately dull and silly, adventurous viewers should not deny themselves the “pleasure” of watching campy German actor Udo Kier, who plays Baron von Frankenstein, repeatedly molesting the gall bladder of the “female zombie” he’s building from the body parts of various women. This mad scientist gets off on his work, big time.
          Unsurprisingly, the plot takes considerable liberties with Shelley’s original narrative. The Baron is preoccupied with creating a master Serbian race defined by superhuman sex drive, so he kills people whom he perceives as having desirable organs, then repurposes their innards. Meanwhile, the Baron endures a twisted marriage to his sister, Katrin (Monique van Vooren), with whom he has fathered two children. Alas, she’s hot for everyone except the Baron. Eventually, the Baron kills a local man, Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), using his head to complete an in-progress “zombie.” Sacha’s pal, Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro), investigates his friend’s disappearance and learns of the Baron’s weird scheme. The movie climaxes with the unveiling of a male and female monster, which results in widespread bloodshed and sex (sometimes at the same time).
          Made somewhat in the style of Hammer Films’ horror movies, with elaborate sets and lush Old World locations, Flesh for Frankenstein has a glossy widescreen look but feels amateurish on every other level. The acting is terrible and the script is inane. Moreover, the gonzo quality of the gore—organs dripping with viscera are pushed toward the camera for full 3D impact—is beyond ridiculous. Combined with the over-the-top sex scenes and the goofy nature of Kier’s performance, Flesh for Frankenstein is perhaps best described as a cartoon for sickos. Which, come to think of it, seems pretty much on-brand for Warhol.
          While still campy in some ways—notably the ridiculous performances and stilted dialogue—Blood for Dracula is much more of a “real” movie than its predecessor. The narrative merely uses Stoker’s enduring character as a jumping-off point, because Blood for Dracula concerns the titular fiend (Kier) scouring Italy for virgins. (Or, because Kier plays the role with his thick German accent intact, “weer-juns.”) The opening of the picture is interesting, portraying Dracula as pathetic figure dying of malnutrition; he slathers himself in hair dye and makeup to give the impression of health, and he whines endlessly to his manservant Anton (Arno Jeruging) about how he’d rather die than face the struggle of hunting for victims.
          Most of the movie takes place in an Italian estate, where Dracula works his way through four eligible daughters of a once-respectable household; now financially destitute, the family’s patriarch happily offers up his daughters as potential brides to the visitor who is presented as a “Middle European aristocrat.” Complicating Dracula’s quest is the presence in the household of a communistic handyman (Dallesandro), who also happens to be sexually involved with two of the daughters. (Hilarity ensues whenever Dallesandro speaks in his Brooklyn accent; for instance, upon learning that Dracula digs virgins, he asks his lovers, “So what’s he doin’ wit’ you two whoo-ers,” stretching the last word into two syllables.)
          Periodically throughout Blood for Dracula, it seems Morrissey believes he’s making a proper drama, so he lingers on dialogue scenes and artful shots, creating tedium because the acting is so awful. Even the sex scenes are dull, despite abundant nudity. Still, the movie looks fantastic, and some flourishes linger, such as the nasty scenes of Dracula vomiting when he unknowingly drinks the blood of fallen women. Blood for Dracula eventually echoes Flesh for Frankenstein with an outrageous finale filled with comically staged dismemberments. Nonetheless, Blood for Dracula is never as outright bizarre as Flesh for Frankenstein, which is both a good and a bad thing—in (mostly) steering clear of self-parody, Blood for Dracula falls squarely in the realm of mediocrity.

Flesh for Frankenstein: FREAKY
Blood for Dracula: FUNKY

Friday, November 29, 2013

Walk Proud (1979)

          By the end of the ’70s, soulful actor Robby Benson had played so many variations of the “sensitive teenager” type that he was undoubtedly eager for new challenges. This would appear to be the only possible explanation for Benson’s casting in Walk Proud, a periodically intense drama about a young Los Angeles Latino who wrestles with issues of personal identity when he realizes he might have outgrown his allegiance to a street gang. Yes, you read that right: Latino. Benson, a native Texan of Jewish extraction, is many things, but Hispanic is not one of them. Even with his famously expressive blue eyes hidden behind dark contacts—and, it seems, his skin slathered in some sort of bronzer—Benson looks completely ridiculous in every frame of Walk Proud. The funny thing, however, is that he actually manages to give a somewhat credible performance, perhaps because he’d already gained so much experience singing the song of the anguished adolescent. Anyway, Benson’s casting is so jaw-droppingly wrong that one can easily consume Walk Proud as a campy misfire and get a few laughs out of the experience, especially when the soundtrack explodes with distinctly non-Chicano synthesizer textures during the violent finale. For those willing to suspend disbelief, though, Walk Proud tells a poignant story.
           Emilio (Benson) is a high school student who runs with a dangerous crowd called the Aztecs. When Emilio falls for a gringo classmate named Sarah (Sarah Holcomb), who sees more potential in him than he sees in himself, Emilio starts to question his role as an Aztec. This identity crisis is exacerbated when Emilio learns a secret about his lineage and when the Aztecs’ conflict with another gang escalates to lethality. Much of the picture comprises everyday scenes of Latino life, including a quinceañera and an excursion to Mexico, so the respect the filmmakers pay to their subject matter is basically admirable. And if the gang stuff is jacked up a bit for effect, that’s an understandable concession to dramaturgy. (Screenwriter Evan Hunter knew his way around stories of at-risk youth, having penned the 1954 novel The Blackboard Jungle, one of the genre’s bedrock texts.) For the most part, Walk Proud works, in a clumsy sort of way, whenever it sticks to the colorful milieu of Hispanic gang culture. Conversely, the movie wobbles whenever it becomes a typical Benson tearjerker, with Holcomb weakly filling the role usually occupied by regular Benson costar Glynis O’Connor. Alas, the movie doesn’t know when to stop, going so far as to include Benson’s angst-ridden delivery of an anti-violence speech featuring the creaky old line, “Where does it end?” Nonetheless, Walk Proud features a string of effective moments—as well as a few unintentionally campy ones—and it has the advantage of novelty.

Walk Proud: FUNKY

Thursday, November 28, 2013

THX 1138 (1971)

          George Lucas’ first feature, the sci-fi thriller THX 1138, is not for everyone, since the subject matter is grim and the execution is self-consciously arty. (Some might say pretentious.) Nonetheless, THX 1138 is inarguably the headiest sort of mainstream science fiction—a film of ideas disguised as visually resplendent escapism. Slotting nicely into the Orwellian tradition of fantastical allegory, Lucas’ movie depicts a future Earth where the working class has been figuratively and literally reduced to automatons. The film’s main character, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall), is bald drone wearing an all-purpose white uniform. That makes him a carbon copy of nearly everyone else occupying the mechanized city in which THX lives and works. The masses are kept in line by government-issued drugs that suppress individuality and sexual appetite. Moreover, frightening robotic police officers patrol the city, suppressing any nascent forms of insurrection. Eventually, THX and a coworker, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), defy the social order by ditching their daily drug regimen, which allows their long-suppressed human qualities to surface. Acting on unexpected attraction, the couple seeks out private places to explore each other’s bodies—and, eventually, each other’s souls. Once discovered, the illicit relationship places THX and LUH in grave danger.
          There’s more to the film’s complex plot, including bold statements about dangerous intersections between religion and totalitarianism, but the core of the piece involves THX and LUH risking everything to discover if there’s more to life than their dehumanizing routine. Whereas in Star Wars (1977) Lucas uses his considerable storytelling gifts to create an intoxicating alternate universe filled with adventure and excitement, in THX 1138 he employs a methodical approach to define a milieu governed by sleek surfaces and omnipresent walls. The leading characters are literally ghosts in the machine until defiance compels them to regain their identities. Some of the visuals in THX 1138 are exquisite, such as the scene of THX and LUH making love in a white room that seems like the living incarnation of infinity, and some of the visuals in the movie are terrifying, such as the vision of metal-masked cops on futuristic motorcycles chasing the heroes through sleek tunnels. The picture can be opaque at times, as if it’s more of an experimental endeavor than a dramatic presentation, but the soulfulness of Duvall’s performance grounds even the most esoteric scenes. (Having twitchy Donald Pleasence in the cast as THX’s workplace superior doesn’t hurt, because nothing can suppress his idiosyncratic energy.)
          Ultimately, the intellect and style of THX 1138 linger in the memory the longest: Consider the long-lens shots that suggest alienation, the wildly imaginative sound work that simulates otherworldliness, and so on. Every frame of THX 1138 underscores why Lucas’ talent could not be denied, no matter how much he was demoralized by the problems that plagued this picture after its completion. For those unfamiliar with the saga, Warner Bros. bankrolled the project because Francis Ford Coppola agreed to serve as executive producer, but then the studio hated Lucas’ original cut and shaved half an hour off the running time. Adding insult to injury, the movie flopped. Heretical as it may sound to Lucasfilm purists, however, the 95-minute Warner Bros. cut isn’t a bad way to see THX 1138, because a little of the film’s chilly tone goes a long way. That said, Lucas—ever the tinkerer—returned the project 30 years later, creating a 121-minute director’s cut that includes, predictably, juiced-up special effects that clash with the original 1971 footage. (The alterations are less irksome than Lucas’ changes to his first three Star Wars movies.) THX 1138 may not be essential ’70s cinema, per se, but it’s easily among the smartest sci-fi movies of the decade. Furthermore, as one of only three featues Lucas directed prior to his late-’90s resurgence, it’s a milestone in one of Hollywood’s most important careers.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Tenant (1976)

          Roman Polanski’s most perverse movie—and that’s saying a lot—is almost certainly his 1976 psychological thriller The Tenant, which features such provocative signifiers as cross-dressing, duplicity, psychological torture, and suicide. Taken solely at face value, the picture is bewildering and nasty. Embraced as satire, however, The Tenant represents a wicked commentary on the madness of contemporary life and the toxic influence that inhumane social structures can have on individuals. Yet while many other Polanski movies lend themselves to straight analysis, with narrative symbols clearly representing specific psychological and/or sociopolitical concepts, The Tenant is deliberately ambiguous. Whether the movie feels playful or pretentious depends on the individual viewer’s perspective, of course, but as with all of Polanski’s work, elegant visuals and peerless technical aspects demand attention. In other words, The Tenant can’t be dismissed as a lark, even though it’s entirely possible that’s how Polanski approached the project.
          The auteur himself stars as Trelkovsky, an everyman who rents an apartment in an old Paris building. The unit became vacant when the previous tenant, Simone, jumped from one of the room’s windows and nearly died. Trelkovsky’s motivations are murky from start to finish. He visits Simone in the hospital, where she’s bandaged from head to toe, then meets Simone’s beautiful friend, Stella (Isabelle Adjani). The duo bond—if that’s the right word, given the morbid circumstances—by witnessing Simone’s death after a sudden emotional outburst. Later, as Trelkovsky explores his peculiar relationship with Stella—for instance, he never dispels her incorrect assumption that Trekovsky and Simone were friends—the protagonist experiences an even weirder dynamic with his new neighbors. Eventually, our “hero” comes to believe that building residents including Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas) and the never-named concierge (Shelley Winters) are scheming to transform Trelkovsky into a replica of Simone. Hence the aforementioned cross-dressing and, inevitably, Trelkovsky’s own suicide attempt—or, if the climax is interpreted differently, his victimization by would-be murderers.
          The Tenant has a muted, dreamy look courtesy of genius European cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and composer Philippe Sarde lends an appropriate degree of menace to the soundtrack. Plus, as always, Polanski’s sly camerawork, distinguished by cleverly hidden cuts and moves, brings viewers into the action with seductive ease. The singular mood of The Tenant has undeniable power, an effect accentuated by the opacity of the performances. Polanski’s acting is strangely charming, although he’s got an impenetrable quality, while supporting players including Adjani, Douglas, and Winters merely represent colors in the movie’s surreal tapestry. As written by Polanski and frequent collaborator Gerard Brach (working from a novel by Roland Topor), The Tenant is unrelentingly odd in every aspect except its storytelling. And that, perhaps, is the most devious aspect of the picture; instead of delivering a cryptogram of a narrative via wild style, Polanski serves this peculiar dish on a bed of classicism. This has the effect of suggesting that, on some level, the real world provides such inherently insane context that the weird events of The Tenant make perfect sense.

The Tenant: FREAKY

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

J.D.’s Revenge (1976)

          An imaginative mash-up of blaxploitation and horror, this New Orleans-set thriller concerns a mild-mannered law student who gets possessed by the spirit of a 1940s crook intent on payback against a murderous hoodlum. Featuring a fair amount of visual panache—think sepia-colored flashbacks and tricky mirror shots during which the protagonist sees another face instead of his own reflection—J.D.’s Revenge is consistently entertaining even though the storyline is alternately murky and overwrought. Much of the film’s potency stems from its nasty depiction of the hero’s behavior while possessed—the hero beats up a senior, slaps around and rapes his girlfriend, and nearly murders a dude by slashing him repeatedly with a straight razor. Whatever its faults, J.D.’s Revenge can’t be accused of timidity.
          Glynn Turman, the amiable star of Cooley High (1975), plays Isaac, an unassuming guy who’s stressed out from his studies but happily involved with an understanding girlfriend, Christella (Joan Pringle). One evening, Isaac and Christella attend a hypnosis show at a Bourbon Street club. While he’s hypnotized, Isaac is invaded by the spirit of J.D. Walker (David McKnight), a criminal who died violently. As the movie progresses, Isaac suffers repeated episodes during which J.D. overtakes Isaac’s body, causing Isaac to act with uncharacteristic savagery. Christella gets the worst of it, receiving two nasty beatings during sexual assaults. Furthermore, Isaac—while under J.D.’s control—tracks down the two men who were present when J.D. died. J.D.’s murderer is a gangster named Theotis Bliss (Fred Pinkard), and that man’s brother is a gangster-turned-evangelist named Rev. Elijah Bliss (Louis Gossett, Jr.). The plot gets unnecessarily complicated whenever the Bliss family is involved, but repeated flashbacks to the awful moment when both J.D. and his sister were murdered underscore why J.D. is so hungry for revenge.
          Screenwriter Jaison Starkes loses the thread of the story at regular intervals, relying on such inexplicable contrivances as J.D.’s spirit wasting time on adventures before tracking down his enemies; additionally, it’s hard to accept the idea that Isaac escapes police capture despite committing multiple heinous acts. Nonetheless, if one can ignore the picture’s myriad logical lapses, J.D.’s Revenge offers plenty of lurid thrills. The image of slight Turman strutting around in 1940s gangster garb while menacing people with his straight razor is unnerving, and the rape scenes are horrific. Plus, even though most of the film’s performances are perfunctory, Gossett is electric in all of his scenes, whether he’s frenetically testifying through church sermons or channeling anguish during the finale.

J.D.’s Revenge: FUNKY

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Promise (1979)

          When the maudlin blockbuster Love Story (1970) reminded the world just how much blatant emotional manipulation audiences could withstand, a tearjerker renaissance was inevitable. Yet by the end of the ’70s, movies in the vein of Ice Castles (1978) and The Promise—both of which feature treacly theme songs crooned by Melissa Manchester—were rapidly approaching self-parody thanks to absurd plots and cheap endeavors to pluck viewers’ heartstrings. So, while The Promise is not to be taken seriously, it’s a certain kind of movie that’s almost guaranteed to touch a certain kind of viewer. Perceived with more critical eyes, the picture’s quite unsatisfactory on a narrative level, redeemed only by appealing production values and sincere performances.
          Fresh-faced Stephen Collins stars as Michael, a rich college senior who is in love with Nancy (Kathleen Quinlan), an artist who was abandoned as a child and raised by nuns. Michael’s overbearing mother, Marion (Beatrice Straight), forbids the couple to marry. Then the young lovers get into a horrible auto accident. Michael falls into a brief coma but otherwise sustains only minor injuries. Nancy, meanwhile, suffers catastrophic facial lacerations. So, while Michael is still comatose, Marion offers Nancy an odd bargain—Marion will pay for Nancy’s reconstructive surgery if Nancy promises never to see Michael again. Predictably, the story then contrives to reunite the lovers years later. Michael doesn’t immediately recognize Nancy, who is living under a new name, because Marion told him Nancy died. Anyway, all of this goes exactly where you might expect, with virtually nothing that could qualify as a surprise happening along the way.
          Director Gilbert Cates, who made a handful of offbeat dramas at the beginning of the ’70s, does what he can to infuse The Promise with actual emotion. He prudently employs extensive location photography, letting vivid places up and down the California coast provide a level of reality that’s lacking from the script. Cates also makes the best of a second-string cast, drawing smooth work from such undistinguished players as Bibi Besch and Laurence Luckinbill. As the film’s villain, Straight tries to play her one-dimensional character with a measure of vulnerability. Meanwhile, Quinlan moves through a full spectrum of emotions; in fact the story regularly twists and turns just to provide fodder for her character’s “moments.” Leading man Collins probably comes off best, for even though his character is a bit of a dope, Collins doesn’t slip into excessive histrionics or waterworks. The Promise isn’t much of a movie, but it’s a glossy presentation from actors and filmmakers who know exactly what audience reaction they’re trying to elicit.

The Promise: FUNKY

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Bullet for Pretty Boy (1970)

          Representing yet another entry into the seemingly endless cycle of post-Bonnie and Clyde crime flicks set during the Depression, A Bullet for Pretty Boy stars former teen idol Fabian—billed with his full name, Fabian Forte—as farmboy-turned-outlaw Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. And while the movie contains nothing even remotely approaching artistry or originality, the picture is basically watchable thanks to the inherent appeal of the genre and the likeability of the leading actor. Fitting the usual formula for this sort of thing, A Bullet for Pretty Boy begins prior to the title character’s life of crime. On the day of his marriage to wholesome Ruby (Astrid Warner), Charles gets into a hassle with Ruby’s ex-boyfriend. Later, the guy aims a gun at Charles and accidentally kills Charles’ father, so Charles gets revenge by killing his father’s murderer. A six-year prison sentence is his reward. Partway through his incarceration, Charles breaks out of jail and becomes a fugitive, hooking up with a kindhearted madam and her gangster brothers, who give Charles the nickname “Pretty Boy.” While hiding out in the madam’s brothel, Charles gets involved with a hooker named Betty (Jocelyn Lane). Eventually, Betty becomes Charles’ moll while he embarks on a bank-robbing career. Finally, the story transforms into a love triangle when Charles tries to return home. Danger and tragedy ensue, because cops are waiting for Charles at every turn.
          While it’s admirable that the folks at American International Pictures attempted to examine the psychological and sociological backgrounds for famous gangsters in pictures such as A Bullet for Pretty Boy, the predictability and superficiality of the storytelling in these movies often undercut the good intentions. For example, even though A Bullet for Pretty Boy is only 89 minutes, the film is padded with music-driven montage sequences that use the same bland pop/rock songs over and over again. In other words, maybe 30 minutes of the movie are devoted to character development, and the rest of the running time comprises repetitive filler. That said, AIP knew how to stretch a dollar, so period props and rural locations are used effectively to create a sense of place, and even the least imaginative bank-robbery scene has some built-in excitement. It’s also (mildly) interesting to note that A Bullet for Pretty Boy is rated PG, which means the movie doesn’t rely on the usual exploitation-cinema tropes of gore and nudity. Instead, the film is primarily focused on the protagonist’s struggle to make the best of the circumstances in which he finds himself. Fabian does acceptable work, scowling to suggest anguish, while leading ladies Lane and Warner provide lovely decoration even if their acting underwhelms. B-movie stalwart Adam Roarke, alas, is wasted in a minor part as a country preacher who leaves the religious life behind to join Charles’ crime spree.

A Bullet for Pretty Boy: FUNKY

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lady Frankenstein (1971)

For most of its running time, the Italian-made horror flick Lady Frankenstein seems like a pointless retelling of the classic Mary Shelley narrative about a mad doctor, Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten), assembling a creature from parts of corpses and then animating the thing with electricity. The only noteworthy wrinkle is the presence in Castle Frankenstein of the doctor’s beautiful daughter, Tania (Rosalba Neri, billed as “Sara Bay”). Yet even her presence doesn’t make much of a difference until about halfway through the running time, when (spoiler alert!) the creature kills the doctor. Then Tania unveils her own special brand of madness by seducing her father’s partner in crime, Charles (Paul Muller), into participating with a grotesque scheme—Tania wants to plant Charles’ brain into the handsome body of a servant, thus creating her perfect man. Had this perversely psychosexual plot been the driving force of the entire movie, Lady Frankenstein might have been more palatable. But then again, the movie has so many rough edges—abrupt editing, bored acting, nonsensical plot twists—that it’s likely nothing could have lifted Lady Frankenstein into the realm of worthwhile cinema. After all, this movie’s version of the Creature (Peter Whiteman) sports silly makeup including an oversized head that looks like a mushroom. On the plus side, for those who simply must see every Franken-flick and/or those whose appetite for low-budget horror in general is insatiable, Neri’s quite sexy with her raven-black hair, intense eyes, and graceful figure—it’s easy to accept her as both madwoman and seductress. (She also benefits from better dubbing than some of her costars receive, since Lady Frankenstein—like most Italian films of the period—includes only post-production sound.) It should also be mentioned that Lady Frankenstein features a smattering of gore and nudity, so the movie is not without its low pleasures. As for ostensible leading man Cotten, by the way, he delivers the sort of somnambulistic performance that characterized the twilight of his career, not even bothering to conceal the East Coast lilt in his voice despite the fact that he’s playing a European.

Lady Frankenstein: LAME

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Great Train Robbery (1979)

          Easily the best movie that novelist/filmmaker Michael Crichton ever directed—thanks to a larky story, rich cinematography, and two vivid performances—The Great Train Robbery is an old-fashioned escapist adventure. Set in late-19th-century England, the movie concerns gentleman crook Edward (Sean Connery), who travels in high-society circles while cruising for possible schemes. One day, Edward learns the particulars about a regular gold shipment transported by the British government to cover military expenses. Excited at the prospect of being the first person to ever rob a moving train, Edward enlists cronies including femme fatale Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down) and pickpocket John (Donald Sutherland). Over the course of several months, Edward’s team tracks down and copies the four keys needed to open the locked train safe in which the gold is stored during transit. Concurrently, Edward contrives an outlandish method for getting onto the train undetected. When unexpected complications arise, Edward’s gang responds with imagination and verve.
          Crichton, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel of the same name, based the story on a real event. As a result, the narrative has the flavor of authenticity even though the tone is strictly lighthearted. Better still, Crichton stays laser-focused on the fun of depicting a seemingly impossible heist, rather than getting bogged down in contrived plotting and/or iffy characterization (two conundrums that permeate Crichton’s wholly original stories). That’s not to say The Great Train Robbery is flawless; quite to the contrary, the movie drags in the middle and contains several passages of stilted dialogue, such as Crichton’s weak attempts at double entendre-laden romantic patter. Nonetheless, the virtues of The Great Train Robbery outweigh the shortcomings. First and foremost, the movie looks gorgeous. Employing his signature deep-focus compositions and haze filters, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth creates a look that seems as if it’s illuminated by the gas lamps of the story’s historical period. Fantastic costuming and production design complete the intoxicating illusion of Unsworth’s imagery.
          Leading man Connery, ever comfortable in the role of the handsome rascal, sells the effervescent aspects of his characterization with a grace reminiscent of Cary Grant, and he underlines the physicality of the character with impressive stunt work on moving trains. Sutherland provides a terrific foil, opting for eccentric whining as a contrast to Connery’s unflappable poise; with his mutton-chop sideburns and scowling expressions, Sutherland approaches but safely avoids camp. Leading lady Down is more beguiling than interesting—while her work in The Great Train Robbery is competent, all she’s really asked to do is look seductive. It’s true that The Great Train Robbery is a bit windy at 110 minutes, although the painstaking approach pays off with such long scenes as the nighttime break-in at a train-depot office. However, with expert composer Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing music pushing things along, The Great Train Robbery snaps back into shape for a bravura finish.

The Great Train Robbery: GROOVY

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

          First, the usual disclaimer for a foreign film that received a dodgy initial release in the U.S.—this Australian feature was originally titled The Cars That Ate Paris, but the fine folks at New Line Cinema must have assumed that American moviegoers would wrongly assume the picture was set in France. Hence the moniker on the above poster: The Cars That Eat People. And while automobiles don’t actually consume any people (or municipalities) in the picture, onscreen events are so bizarre that carnivorous vehicles wouldn’t have represented much of a stretch. Incredibly, this grim phantasmagoria represents the directorial debut of Peter Weir, who subsequently joined the ranks of the world’s most respected filmmakers. One assumes that the normally high-minded Weir envisioned the picture as a satire on consumerist culture (and on the eccentricities of rural Australians), but the surpassing weirdness of The Cars That Ate Paris is highly distracting. The picture doesn’t cross over into outright surrealism, but it comes close.
          Framed somewhat like a horror movie, The Cars That Ate Paris presents a fictional Australian municipality called Paris, where the main business is scavenging parts from cars that crash on a nasty mountaintop road just outside of town. In fact, Paris residents actually cause these accidents, evading notice from authorities by concealing evidence. Worse, survivors are taken to the local hospital and lobotomized, which is why the hospital is stocked with people in semi-vegetative states. One night, a sad-sack type named Arthur (Terry Camilleri) and his brother fall into the Paris trap, and only Arthur survives. For reasons that never become particularly clear, the mayor of Paris, Les (John Meillon), decides to accept Arthur into the town’s regular population. Conveniently for the plot, Arthur is afraid of driving because he once caused a fatal vehicular accident, so he has no real means of escape. Much of The Cars That Ate Paris depicts Arthur’s integration into the strange rhythms of Paris culture. The movie also dramatizes strife between the town’s established power structure and youthful rebels led by Charlie (Bruce Spence). The whole strange predicament concludes with a citywide celebration that turns into a bloody riot. During the climax, Weir unleashes such peculiar vignettes as the mayor reading an intense poem filled with Aussie patois (never has the word “billabong” found a more suitable home). Meanwhile, the youth gang rages through the town in customized cars festooned with spikes and other lethal adornments.
          By far the least effective element of The Cars That Ate Paris is the picture’s esoteric humor. Some of the visual gags are so broad they could appear in Monty Python sketches (such as the town doctor using a power drill to perform lobotomies), and some of the bits are so subtle as to barely exist. It’s also possible that the film is so infused with Aussie signifiers that foreigners don’t possess the necessary frame of reference for recognizing some of the punch lines. Still, as the movie grinds through one inexplicable scene after another (and as indifferent leading man Camilleri shuffles through the movie like he’s received one of the town’s signature lobotomies), a sense of inertia clouds the whole enterprise. It’s evident that Weir had an absurdist itch to scratch at this point his career; after all, his next two films were 1975’s ethereal Picnic at Hanging Rock and 1977’s impenetrable The Last Wave. Furthermore, given all that Weir has subsequently accomplished, it’s unwise to dismiss The Cars That Ate Paris as simply a misguided or pretentious attempt at allegory. However, evidence contravening that assessment remains in short supply, because The Cars That Ate Paris is as dull as it is odd.

The Cars That Ate Paris: FREAKY

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Little Cigars (1973)

          Featuring a genuinely offbeat take on the romantic-outlaw genre, Little Cigars concerns a criminal gang comprising five little people—at least until a normal-sized woman with grandiose dreams raises the stakes of their larcenous exploits. Blonde knockout Angel Tompkins, working an appealing groove of seen-it-all cynicism, stars as Cleo, a gang moll who rips off a gangster and then flees the big city, hoping to live quietly under an assumed identity in a small town far from the scene of the crime. Alas, the gangster sends goons to chase her down, so Cleo realizes she’ll never be far from danger.
          One day at the restaurant where she’s working as a waitress, Cleo meets a pair of smart-aleck little people who invite her to see their traveling sideshow. She does. During the show, while three members of the little-people troupe distract onlookers with a stage performance, the remaining little people sneak out to the parking lot and pilfer belongings from cars. Among the stolen items is the pistol Cleo keeps in her car for protection. After discovering the theft and figuring out the little people’s scam, Cleo confronts Slick Bender (Billy Curtis), the leader of the gang, to demand the return of her gun. Quickly realizing that Cleo must be on the lam, Slick Bender calls her bluff—thus beginning an unlikely flirtation. Although unmatched in size, Cleo and Slick Bender are simpatico in terms of chutzpah. Happy to leave the small town behind and return to the excitement of criminal enterprise, Cleo joins the gang and becomes Slick Bender’s lover. As his desire to impress Cleo grows, so too does the ambition of the jobs the gang attempts—which drives a wedge between Slick Bender and his buddies, who prefer sticking to petty larceny that doesn’t attract much attention.
          While Little Cigars feels a bit fleshy because the filmmakers forgot to develop a central villain, the movie is consistently entertaining and novel. The gang’s heists are predicated on the crooks’ size—for instance, they sneak into a laundry facility by hiding inside laundry bags—and Cleo’s Lady Macbeth-style machinations credibly suggest an opportunist run amok. Curtis, a Hollywood veteran with credits ranging back to the late ’30s, makes the most of his role, one of the few fully dimensional characterizations he got to play in movies; he’s edgy and funny and sympathetic. Similarly, the actors playing his pals contribute unexpected colors, clearly savoring the chance to move beyond demeaning “midget” clichés. Tompkins sells the whole outlandish story by playing her scenes straight, treating Curtis as a scene partner with equal footing; she also comes off looking like a goddess whenever she parades around in underwear surrounded by admirers who are barely as high as her rib cage. And if Little Cigars is ultimately little more than a routine crime flick with an unusual angle, the movie gets points for a highly satisfying ending and a thoroughly ingrained sense of humor.

Little Cigars: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)

          Creepy, provocative, and sexy, this psychological thriller asks what might happen if a rational modern man began to suspect that he was the reincarnation of someone else—and then complicates that central question by implying that the soul haunting the modern man’s body came back to settle some nasty unfinished business. Michael Sarrazin, perfectly cast because his wide eyes and slim build give him an ethereal quality no matter the circumstances, stars as Peter Proud, a West Coast college professor whose life seems perfect. He’s happy, respected, successful, and romantically involved with a beautiful fellow teacher, Nora (Cornelia Sharpe). Yet when Peter starts experiencing disturbing nightmares and phantom pains that doctors can’t explain, he seeks out help from a paranormal researcher, Samuel (Paul Hecht). Samuel suggests that Peter may be reliving memories from a past life.
          Determined to resolve the situation, Peter tracks down the Massachusetts city in which his nightmares/memories take place. Finding the city confirms to Peter that the reincarnation is real. Next, Peter connects with Marcia (Margot Kidder), the widow of Peter’s prior incarnation, and Ann (Jennifer O’Neil), Marcia’s daughter. Peter doesn’t explain to either of these women why he’s in Massachusetts, partially because he doubts they’ll believe him and partially because in the recurring nightmares/memories, Marcia murders Peter’s prior incarnation. Obsessively investigating the past-life mystery damages Peter’s present-day life, because Nora bails on Peter when the going gets weird. Later, things get even worse when Peter’s relationships with Ann and Marcia gain Freudian dimensions.
          As helmed by J. Lee Thompson, who mixes carnality and savagery in this film much as he did in the great Cape Fear (1962), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is efficient, erotic, and evocative—an offbeat mixture of sleazy thrills and thought-provoking concepts. Although the film loses points for its troika of mediocre female performances (Kidder, O’Neill, and Sharpe are each gorgeous but amateurish), Sarrazin’s intensity keeps the piece on track. Written by Max Ehrlich, who adapted his novel of the same name, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud fits into the mid-’70s trend of sensationalistic pseudoscience in popular culture. Furthermore, the writer gives decent lip service to the philosophical and theological implications of Peter’s experience, because—as the story’s paranormal researcher says at one point—the revelation that reincarnation is real could permanently alter the human experience by erasing fear of death. No dummy, Ehrlich delivers all of this heady material in the form of a story filled with sex and violence.
         And while the film’s brutality is fairly minor, the film’s sexuality is quite intense. Both lurid aspects of the picture converge in a climactic scene (no pun intended) featuring Marcia masturbating in a bathtub while recalling the brutal affections of her late husband. This startling vignette was almost certainly the most graphic depiction of female self-pleasure in a mainstream movie until the release of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). Yet the presence of such moments gets to the heart of why The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is so watchable. With strong elements ranging from the disturbing psychosexual connotations of the story to the unnerving score by the great Jerry Goldsmith (love those electronic accents!), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud engages the viewer on myriad levels simultaneously. It’s not high art, per se, but it’s definitely not low art, either.

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud: GROOVY

Monday, November 18, 2013

Game of Death (1978)

          As is true for James Dean, the legend of martial-arts superstar Bruce Lee revolves around a surprisingly small body of work. In fact, Lee starred in only one English-language feature, Enter the Dragon (1973), the release of which he did not live to see. Left unfinished in the wake of Lee’s death were various projects including Game of Death, an allegorical action film whose production was suspended when Lee got the chance to make Enter the Dragon. Several years after Lee’s death, however, Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was hired to build a film around the extant Game of Death footage. Game of Death is as exploitive, ghoulish, and tacky as most attempts to collateralize the public’s affection for a dead actor—here’s looking at you, The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)—but Game of Death still has significance for Lee fans. For a good 10 minutes during the climax, when the real Lee is visible kicking and punching his way through a trio of fight scenarios, Game of Death becomes a “lost” film rediscovered. Unfortunately, everything else about Game of Death is highly problematic.
          After sneakily opening the movie by repurposing a famous screen fight between Lee and Chuck Norris (from 1973’s Return of the Dragon), Clouse employs stand-ins, occasionally punctuated by shots of the real Lee from Enter the Dragon outtakes, to simulate the star’s appearance. This technique doesn’t work, especially when chintzy optical effects are utilized to, say, superimpose a towel around Lee’s shoulders. By the end of the movie, Clouse blatantly cuts back and forth between vintage Lee footage and new shots of stand-ins, with the stand-ins’ faces plainly visible. It’s all quite insulting and ridiculous—adjectives that could just as easily be applied to the plot, about a movie star (Lee) who fakes his death so he can seek revenge against a mobster. In extensive English-language scenes, indifferent American actors Dean Jagger, Hugh O’Brian, and Gig Young deliver boring exposition while earnest American starlet Colleen Camp tries to fabricate a relationship with a phantom costar. The middle of the movie, in which the Americans and the stand-ins carry the plot almost completely, is borderline interminable. On the plus side, the folks behind Game of Death spent lavishly on post-production, commissioning a 007-style opening-credits sequence and hiring top-shelf composer John Barry (deepening the 007 association) to give the picture a fuller musical voice than it actually deserves.
          The best material in Game of Death doesn’t arrive until the finale, when Lee slips on a yellow tracksuit (later referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies) to square off against opponents including a giant temple guard played by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabar. The sight of comparatively tiny Lee battling the towering Jabar is hard to shake, as is, of course, the sheer charisma and elegance that Lee exudes whenever he’s onscreen. Lee is so commanding, in fact, that one wishes his Hollywood swan song was more fitting than this hack job. The makers of Game of Death trample so clumsily over Lee’s dignity that they even include a shot of the real Lee’s corpse, which was displayed publicly during a wake in Hong Kong.

Game of Death: LAME

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Deadly Hero (1975)

          After the success of films including The French Connection (1971) ushered in a new vogue for stories about cops operating outside the law, misguided projects such as Deadly Hero were inevitable. The grim saga of a psychopath who operates with impunity because he wears a badge—at least until a courageous witness beholds one of his bloody misdeeds—the picture is bogged down in shortcomings. Primarily, the movie has a choppy rhythm owing to underdeveloped subplots and indecision about which character is the protagonist. Moreover, the title character’s actions become so outrageous that his ability to evade capture becomes unbelievable. And then there’s the whole question of tone, since Deadly Hero is alternately a realistic police story, a clichéd thriller about a stalker, and a mildly interesting character study examining the title character’s humiliating involvement with big-city politicians. Deadly Hero is a straight-up mess, albeit a vivid one.
          When the picture begins, Officer Lacy (Don Murray) is a decorated NYPD beat cop riding patrol with his green partner, Billings (Treat Williams, in his first movie role). Lacy has designs on public office, so he sidles up to mayoral candidate named Reilly (George S. Irving). Meanwhile, Sally (Diahn Williams) is a musician who splits her time between teaching children and leading the orchestra for an experimental theater. One night, an eccentric crook claiming to be an ambassador named “Rabbit Shazam” (James Earl Jones) spots Sally at the theater and follows her home. He then threatens to kill her unless Sally’s father pays a ransom, but Lacy and Billings are summoned to Sally’s home by a neighbor who suspects trouble. Lacy disarms Shazam—and then kills the man for no apparent reason. After initially supporting Lacy, Sally eventually comes forward with the truth, becoming a target for Lacy’s revenge.
          Although the plot for Deadly Hero is offbeat and provocative, the filmmakers—including hack feature/TV director Ivan Nagy—can’t pull the disparate elements together. For instance, the performances are all over the place. Murray is wildly undisciplined, going cartoonishly over the top at one moment and trying for frightening understatement the next. Williams barely registers as anything but a pleasantly sophisticated cipher. As for Jones, who’s only in the movie for about 20 minutes, he succumbs to silly flamboyance when trying to channel craziness. It’s worth noting that the picture has credible atmosphere thanks to extensive NYC location photography by DP Andrzej Bartkowiak (who did much better work later in his career), and that film-score nerds will easily recognize the driving synth textures that co-composer Brad Fiedel (of Terminator fame) presumably contributed to the soundtrack.

Deadly Hero: FUNKY

Saturday, November 16, 2013

W.C. Fields and Me (1976)

          While not to be taken seriously, seeing as how its attempts at verisimilitude result in campy superficiality, the showbiz biopic W.C. Fields and Me is watchable by virtue of a brisk pace, interesting subject matter, and lush production values. As for the acting, that’s by far the film’s weakest element—ironic, since both leading characters were actors in real life. But then again, star Rod Steiger delivers an over-the-top caricature while playing a man who spent his life cultivating a larger-than-life persona, and costar Valerie Perrine delivers an underwhelming turn while playing a woman who, for 14 years, was overshadowed by her more talented companion. So, in a weird way, the mixture works for creating mindless entertainment, even if W.C Fields and Me is hardly a dilligent replication of history.
          Based on a memoir by Carlotta Monti, a bit player who caught the real Fields’ eye and then spent a decade and a half as his assistant, companion, and occasional lover, W.C. Fields and Me depicts Fields’ trajectory from the end of his vaudeville career to the last days of his life. When he’s introduced, Fields (Steiger) is already a stage star, but his arrogance and drinking alienate him from employers including the legendary Florenz Ziegeld (Paul Stewart). In a weak attempt to portray Fields as psychologically complex, the picture asserts that he used onstage shock tactics (such as risqué humor) to compensate for offstage anxieties, and the filmmakers accentuate Fields’ jealous feelings toward fellow comic Charlie Chaplin. After a financial turnaround, Fields sets out for Hollywood accompanied by his only real friend, a little-person actor named Ludwig (Billy Barty). By writing comedy scripts and submitting them to studios, Fields eventually wins the patronage of studio boss Bannerman (John Marley), who gives Fields his first shot at performing on camera. Stardom follows, as does an excessive lifestyle defined by drunken adventures with pals including John Barrymore (Jack Cassidy). Eventually, Carlotta (Perrine) enters the mix, but her endeavors to wean Fields off booze fail, so she ends up bearing witness to the legendary funnyman’s decline.
          Itemizing all the things that are unsatisfying about W.C. Fields and Me would take an inordinate amount of time, so a few key complaints will have to suffice. The central relationship is inconsequential. Fields never evinces any growth as a character. Every showbiz type presented onscreen is a one-dimensional cliché. Steiger’s performance never achieves liftoff, because the actor wobbles between mimicking Fields’ gimmick of speaking from one side of his mouth—making the character seem like Burgess Meredith as the Penguin on the old Batman TV series—and because Steiger’s few moments of effective nonverbal pathos seem like Steiger peeking through the characterization, rather than the other way around. Worse, director Arthur Hiller can’t seem to decide whether the film is a comedy or a drama, so while some scenes include broad farce, others are mawkishly sentimental. Having said all that, the movie looks gorgeous; cinematographer David M. Walsh uses a glamorous combination of painterly angles, romantic filters, and sweeping camera movement to make Old Hollywood look seductive. Furthermore, the movie zips along at terrific speed, never losing clarity.

W.C. Fields and Me: FUNKY