Thursday, July 20, 2017

1980 Week: The Apple

          Highly entertaining documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014) explores, in part, the cultural dissonance that resulted whenever Cannon’s founders, Israelis Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus, attempted to create movies for the international market without realizing how idiomatically they approached storytelling. As a small example of this nuance, consider a moment in the batshit-crazy musical The Apple, which Golan directed. Entering a messy apartment, a landlady exclaims: “What happened in here, a pogrom?” Or consider The Apple itself, a staggeringly wrong-headed epic using a story about the disco-era music business as an allegory for the fall of Adam and Eve from God’s grace. Yes, the apple at the heart of the story—represented, per the film’s bigger-is-better aesthetic, by a gigantic prop the size of a watermelon—is a symbol of man’s eternal sin.
          Don’t get the idea, however, that The Apple is purely high-minded, because the picture also contains one of the filthiest original songs ever composed for a motion picture. That’s how it goes with The Apple, and that’s how it went with most of the terrible movies that Golan and Globus unleashed on the world during their decades-long reign of cinematic terror. More than just bad taste, chintzy budgets, and grade-Z actors, the Cannon Films brand was synonymous with misguided storytelling. The Apple is perhaps the apex of Cannon leaving human reality behind to venture into parts unknown.
          Set in the future, the film imagines a bizarre scenario wherein a music-publishing company becomes the dominant political force in the world, controlling the economy through the popularity of its rock stars. Naturally, the head of the publishing company, Boogaloo (Vladek Sheybal), is the devil figure in this parable. His victims are the story’s Adam and Eve characters, sensitive and wholesome singer-songwriters Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), who hail from the random location of Moosejaw, Canada. When the story begins, Alphie and Bibi try performing their ballad about love, “The Universal Melody,” during Univsion’s famous song contest. (In real life, the contest introduced the world to ABBA, so there’s that.) Boogaloo tampers with speakers during the duo’s performance, ensuring that his prefab band wins the contest. Then Boogaloo tempts Alphie and Bibi with the promise of a recording contract. Bibi accepts the offer—a moment dramatized by a dream sequence set in hell, complete with the aforementioned giant apple—but Alphie does not.
          Thereafter, the movie tracks Bibi’s degrading transformation into a slutty pop star. Meanwhile, Alphie mopes about the cost of integrity. Eventually, Boogaloo decrees that everyone in the world must wear a “BIM sticker,” emblematic of his publishing company’s brand name, or else risk arrest. Alphie gets pulled into Boogaloo’s seductive web, only to help Bibi escape so they can find God—excuse me, “Mr. Topps” (Joss Ackland)—hiding in a hippie commune. It’s all much weirder than it sounds, and the whole thing is presented with the visual aesthetic of a bad ’70s TV special: shiny costumes, sexualized dance numbers, star filters, and stupid songs.
          Of those songs, the most staggering is “Coming,” sung by one of Boogaloo’s acolytes—a sexy African-American chanteuse—on the occasion of luring Alphie into bed. As she writhes atop Alphie and imagines (or sees?) other couples enjoying choreographed couplings, she moans these lyrics: “Make it harder and harder and faster and faster, and when you think you can’t keep it up, I’ll take you deeper and deeper and tighter and tighter, and drain every drop of your love.”
          Is it hot in here, or is it just me?
          Golan and his collaborators employ seemingly every musical style imaginable, as if the notion of a guiding aesthetic never occurred to them; The Apple has ballet, tap, reggae, and more. Adding to the weirdness is the international cast—characters with prominent foreign accents are supposed to be from the same places as characters without accents. Stewart, appearing in her first film, is an actual Canadian who sounds like she’s from the American heartland, while Gilmour, who never appeared in another film, sounds indecipherably European. Playing the devil character is a Polish actor who sounds Israeli, and playing the God character is an English actor who sounds German. And for every song that’s more or less palatable—despite its salaciousness, “Coming” is sorta catchy—there’s a tune that plays like nails on a chalkboard. It’s probably best to avoid deciphering The Apple, instead letting the monumental vulgarity wash over you. And if you’re a real masochist, try watching this one alongside 1980’s other misbegotten disco epics, Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu.

The Apple: FREAKY

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1980 Week: Ruckus

          Essentially a dunderheaded precursor to First Blood (1982), this silly action picture falls midway through the cycle of ’70s and ’80s movies about PTSD-addled Vietnam veterans, both in terms of chronological release and quality. Written and directed by one Max Kleven, a veteran stuntman with a brief and undistinguished directing career, Ruckus avoids the sleazy extremes of some PTSD flicks, because it doesn’t edge into kinky sex stuff or linger on violence. Unfortunately, by taking the genteel approach, Ruckus ends up seeming cartoonish, a problem exacerbated by Kleven’s genuinely terrible screenplay. Characters in Kleven’s world do things simply because they’re convenient for moving the story along, or because some similar character took a similar action in another movie. Nothing here rings true. Kleven’s direction isn’t much better than his writing, and he regularly slips into unintentional goofiness, as during the spectacularly dumb dirt-bike scene (more on that later). In the first-time filmmaker’s defense, he had the bad luck of landing only second-rate actors for both leading roles: Dirk Benedict and Linda Blair.
          The story starts the usual way, with a dirty drifter shuffling into a small town. Locals hassle him simply because he’s different. The drifter is Kyle Hanson (Benedict), who for reasons that are never explained has thick mud caked onto his face. While eating at a roadside stand, Kyle encounters Sam Bellows (Ben Johnson), a rich guy whose son is an MIA soldier. This explains why Kyle finds a receptive audience when, later, he breaks into Sam’s home and meets Sam’s voluptuous daughter-in-law, Jenny (Blair). She helps Kyle hide from the locals who are chasing him. (Never mind why, it’s all too stupid.) Eventually, Ruckus becomes into a weird survival story, because Kyle occupies a small island and uses guerilla tactics, martial arts, and stolen explosives to rebel invaders.
          None of this makes sense, but Kleven bombards viewers with colorful images. At his worst, he loses his grip on what should be a serious tone—witness the bizarre spectacle of Jenny and Kyle doing coordinated dirt-bike jumps in slow-motion as if they’re Mr. and Mrs. Evel Knievel. Benedict is quite bad, too big in unhinged scenes and too small in quiet scenes, while Blair is blandly sweet and Johnson phones in a non-performance. Only Richard Farnsworth, playing a seen-it-all sheriff, hits the right notes. For kicks, check out the film’s various posters, because during various releases, this picture was marketed as everything from a laugh-a-minute lark to an ultraviolent shoot-’em-up. Alternate titles include Big Ruckus in a Small Town, Eat My Smoke, The Loner, and Ruckus in Madoc County.

Ruckus: FUNKY

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

1980 Week: Carny

          Picture, if you dare, the disturbing images that open Carny. Gary Busey, in all his glorious weirdness, sits in a dark room before a mirror, a single light illuminating his face from above, as he applies black, red, and white clown makeup, all the while bulging his eyes and baring his gigantic teeth to test the progress of his transformation. Insinuating music underscores the scene. And that’s how it is with Carny as a whole—strange and unpleasant things happen, with very little context, and peculiar sonic flourishes push the whole experience along. At varying points, Carny is funny, humane, insightful, sexy, and terrifying. Yet the movie is also dull, pointless, and sloppy. Is it a horror movie about violent drifters who work in traveling carnivals? Is it a low-rent romantic triangle involving two grown men battling over the affections of a teenager exploring her sexual power? Is it a melodrama concerning outsider artists whose work provides a venue for the misfits of the world, even as criminals and shifting social mores speed their advance toward irrelevance? The answer to each of those questions is yes—but Carny is still unquestionably a disappointment, because the film is so conventional as to require a strong central storyline, which it lacks.
          One can’t help but wonder whether producer, cowriter, and leading man Robbie Robertson—a genuine rock star best known for his tenure as the Band’s guitarist and principal songwriter—imagined collaborating on this film with his friend Martin Scorsese. Although Carny exists way outside Scorsese’s preferred urban-crime milieu, surely Scorsese would have known how to wrangle the film’s ideas and textures into a coherent script. Clearly, Robertson did not.
          At its core, Carny spins a dishearteningly simple yarn. When the Great American Carnival rolls into a small town, 18-year-old waitress Donna (Jodie Foster) becomes infatuated with Frankie (Busey), a “geek” who spends his nights inside a cage above a water tank, verbally abusing rubes so they’ll pay to dunk him. Donna leaves home to, as the saying goes, run away with the circus. This causes friction with Frankie’s best friend, Patch (Robertson), the carnival’s fixer. (He breaks up fights and pays bribes to officials in towns the carnival visits.) There movie also has about a dozen subplots, some of which receive no more than a moment or two of screen time, and eventually the Donna business turns sordid when she becomes a dancer in the carny’s girlie show.
          There’s a lot of everything in Carny, as evidenced by the massive supporting cast: Elisha Cook Jr., Meg Foster, Kenneth MacMillan, Bill McKinney, Tim Thomerson, Fred Ward, Craig Wasson, and more. The film also bursts with special people portraying sideshow performers. All of these characters wander through engrossing vignettes, so the plot sometimes feels like an interruption. Not helping matters is Alex North’s truly awful musical score, which turns unhelpfully comedic during dark moments. You’d think Robertson would have at least gotten the music right in his capacity as producer, especially since his acting is naturalistic but forgettable. Busey is unhinged whenever he’s in geek mode, and he brings surprising tenderness to quiet scenes. Foster, meanwhile, delivers an atypically indifferent performance, but she’s beguilingly sensual here—as in her other 1980 film, Foxes, Foster seemed determined to demonstrate after a three-year screen hiatus that she was no longer a juvenile.

Carny: FUNKY

Monday, July 17, 2017

1980 Week: Stir Crazy

          After Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder scored as a comedy team in the 1976 farce Silver Streak, a reunion was inevitable. As directed by the venerable Sidney Poitier, Stir Crazy emulates the Silver Streak formula without quite matching the earlier film’s frenetic energy. Worse, Stir Crazy bungles a romantic subplot, which is problematic since the sparks between Wilder and leading lady Jill Clayburgh were a major element of Silver Streak’s appeal. Yet the biggest shortcoming of Stir Crazy is that the storyline separates Pryor and Wilder for long stretches of screen time. Whenever the actors are together, Stir Crazy vibrates with good-natured silliness, and whenever they aren’t, the movie gets mired in the humdrum machinations of its contrived plot.
          The movie begins in New York, where wannabe actor Harry (Pryor) and wannabe playwright Skip (Wilder) work, respectively, as a store detective and a waiter. Both men get fired on the same day, so ultra-optimistic Skip proposes they relocate to Hollywood. Car trouble stands them in Arizona, at which point Skip offers another “brilliant” suggestion—he and Harry don bird costumes to perform a musical number inside a bank as part of a promotional event. Then two criminals steal the costumes and rob the bank, thereby framing Harry and Skip for the crime. Up to this point, about 30 minutes into the movie, things are going well—the gags are weak but plentiful, and the plotting approaches a farcical level of lunacy. But then our intrepid heroes get thrown into prison, which brings the fast-moving narrative to a screeching halt. Once behind bars, Harry and Skip have predictable (and occasionally offensive) encounters with stereotypical characters including a gigantic serial killer, a tough gang leader, and a queeny homosexual. Meanwhile, Warden Beatty (Barry Corbin) improbably discovers that Skip has natural talents as a bull rider (!), so he orders Skip to perform in a corrupt prison rodeo. (Shades of 1974’s The Longest Yard.)
          Flashes of amusement emerge during the picture’s fleshy middle, such as physical-comedy bits of Pryor and Wilder trying to fit into a miniscule prison cell, but the overall vibe is needlessly heavy and tiresome. By the time the flick winds toward its conclusion, Stir Crazy becomes an elaborate prison-break saga with virtually zero laughs. Nonetheless, the picture’s technical execution is impeccable, and the best moments in Pryor’s and Wilder’s performances are highly enjoyable. After Stir Crazy, the actors reunited twice more, for See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991), both of which tarnished the legacy of a once-mighty screen pairing.

Stir Crazy: FUNKY

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Schoolgirls in Chains (1973)

Myriad grotesque horror-movie tropes permeate Schoolgirls in Chains, an ugly (and yet quite dull) story about two brothers who kidnap young women, chain them to the walls of their basement, and force the women to participate in twisted “games.” The story also has elements of incest and necrophilia, because the muscular brother, Frank (Gary Kent), slept with his mother while she was alive, and now keeps her rotting corpse propped up beside him in bed at night. Meanwhile, the simpleton brother, John (John Parker), digs “playing doctor” with the captive ladies, as in forcing them to ingest mysterious pills and stabbing them with needles. The tone of the movie is so inappropriate that during one scene of John poking a young woman’s behind with a syringe, the soundtrack features a peppy version of “London Bridge Is Falling Down” played on a whistle. And that’s not the only time happy music accompanies some vignette of vile behavior. Your guess is as good as mine whether this represents an attempt at humor, blatant incompetence, or outright perversion. In any event, Schoolgirls in Chains is so grimy it’s probably not worth analyzing too closely. Some of the acting is passable, though a few performances are quite weak, and the way the filmmakers regularly circle back to leering topless scenes says a lot about where they imagined their movie fitting into the marketplace. Even if Schoolgirls in Chains wasn’t made by men who hate women, it was certainly made for men who hate women—or at least men who find cathartic release in channeling their aggressions through skanky cinematic fantasies.

Schoolgirls in Chains: LAME

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Adam’s Woman (1970)

          Offering an interesting look at sociopolitical dynamics impacting Australia during the era when the island nation was used by the British empire as a penal colony, Adam’s Woman tells the eventful story of a convict offered land and a dowry in exchange for marrying a “fallen” woman. Extrapolated from historical events but heavily fictionalized, the picture depicts a humanistic British nobleman, Sir Philip MacDonald (John Mills), serving as Australia’s governor. Through an experimental rehabilitation program, he offers property to hardy prisoners as a means of compelling them to abandon criminality. Not unimportantly, the program also serves the crown’s goal of colonizing remote areas. Adam Beecher (Beau Bridges) is an American serving a two-year term on assault charges, and his incarceration gets extended by seven years following an escape attempt. Sympathetic to Adam’s claim that he was innocent of the original crime, Sir Philip selects Adam for the dowry experiment, giving the inmate his pick of several jailed women. He chooses Bess (Jane Merrow), a willful convict from Ireland. They establish a homestead in a rugged valley, but conflict emerges with gangs of criminals seeking to exploit and terrorize the homesteaders.
          Had Adam’s Woman been written with more care and sophistication, the picture would have been a valuable piece of historical fiction, using the dowry system to explore myriad aspects of this complicated chapter in Australia’s history. Alas, the filmmakers simultaneously attempt too little and too much. Characterizations are thin, and the politics are mostly reduced to easily digestible slogans. More problematically, the narrative has an epic sprawl despite a running time of just 115 minutes; to properly service all the subplots and themes on display, three hours would have been a more ideal duration. The picture bursts with provocative ideas, and the production values are generally excellent, but everything feels rushed and superficial. Regarding the performances, Merrow and costar Andrew Keir (who plays a merciful prison guard) are the standouts, melding grit with heart. Mills is as mannered as usual, though he speaks beautifully, and Bridges applies more blunt-force intensity than precision or skill. Adding to the movie’s ho-hum quality are the fruity folk songs on the soundtrack, such as the opening-credits number that overdramatically describes harsh sentences given to prisoners exiled from Britain to Australia.

Adam’s Woman: FUNKY

Friday, July 14, 2017

Wolfman (1979)

I like to believe that Earl Owensby had an absolute blast during the ’70s, building a production facility in North Carolina so he could generate a string of low-budget movies in which he starred, despite having negligible acting skills. Most of his flicks were redneck-themed action pictures, but every so often he threw a curveball with something like Wolfman. As the unimaginative title suggests, this on-the-cheap creature feature delivers a bland lycanthropy tale owing a great deal to The Wolf Man (1941). Owensby’s Wolfman is a terrible movie, thanks to anemic acting and sluggish pacing, but it’s almost endearingly bad because one gets a sense it was fun to make. After all, what movie fan wouldn’t get a kick out of building Gothic sets, drenching them with artificial moonlight, and shooting scenes with hands popping out from graves, monsters crashing through windows, and supernatural zealots wielding silver daggers? Plus, by casting himself in the title role, Owensby got to emulate Lon Chaney Jr. by sitting still while makeup applications and overlapping dissolves create the unconvincing (but charmingly old-fashioned) illusion that he’s becoming a hirsute horror. Not that it matters, but the plot, which is set in the early 1900s, goes like this: After his father dies, Colin (Owensby) returns to the family estate, where conniving relatives make him the latest victim of family’s werewolf curse. There’s other stuff—forged legal papers and romance with the girl next door, et cetera—but that’s all background noise. The “pleasure” of experiencing Wolfman involves watching a doughy dude with a drawl and his down-home pals shuffling their way through what amounts to a Halloween-themed costume party.

Wolfman: LAME

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Just Be There (1973)

          Earnest drama Just Be There epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of low-budget indie filmmaking circa the early ’70s. On the plus side, the movie has abundant local flavor, with real locations throughout the Minneapolis/St. Paul area providing the backdrops, and the use of amateur and semiprofessional actors means there isn’t any trace of Hollywood slickness in the performances. On the minus side, no film-industry veterans were present to push producer-star Michael Montgomery outside his comfort zone of gentle character work, so the picture lacks anything resembling commercial elements. In fact, it barely even has a story, since Just Be There mostly depicts the protagonist’s angst upon returning from Vietnam. To Montgomery’s credit, he avoids the cliché of presenting his main character as a PTSD-addled psycho, but to Montgomery’s detriment, the protagonist handles wartime trauma so well that seems as if he endured a tiring overseas voyage rather than soul-searing jungle combat. Timidity is the watchword here, both in terms of the storytelling and the style. And that’s why Just Be There is such a quintessential indie: Whereas the worst Hollywood pictures bludgeon viewers with overstatement, Just Be There nearly puts viewers to sleep with understatement.
          The narrative begins with Mitchell (Montgomery) returning home to his girlfriend, Kathy (Lynn Baker), and his parents. Dad runs an investment firm selling futures in pork bellies and the like, while Mom is a housewife. Mitchell longs to write a novel about his wartime experiences, an ambition that Kathy supports, but Dad wants Mitchell to join the family business. Upon doing so, Mitchell succumbs to the lure of steady money and upward mobility. Soon, he is so lost that he begins an affair with an alluring coworker. Through it all, Mitchell treats Kathy worse and worse, blowing up whenever she has the temerity to call him on his bullshit. Yet we, the viewers, are meant to sympathize with Mitchell, because, y’know, he’s goin’ through a heavy scene, man. Just Be There is relatively well made, so the movie exists on roughly the level of an advanced film-school project. Because Montgomery never made another picture, it’s unknown whether he could have improved upon this first effort. Also known as Comin’ Home and Stranger at Home, the movie was reissued—with a change in rating from PG to R—as Swinging Teacher, so presumably racy footage was added. These remarks pertain to the original version.

Just Be There: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Beast of Blood (1970)

After unleashing gory sci-fi mayhem in The Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968), director Eddie Romero and star Josh Ashley reteamed for this sequel, which is also known as Return to the Horrors of Blood Island, among many other titles. The picture begins with Dr. Bill Foster (Ashley) heading back to civilization after his adventures in the first picture. Alas, one of evil Dr. Lorca’s creatures is on the same boat trip, leading to a slaughter and an explosion. Bill survives and resolves to visit Dr. Lorca’s chamber-of-horrors island once more. Tagging along is leggy reporter Myra Russell (Celeste Yarnall). The purpose of the return visit is somewhat murky, though it presumably has to do with Bill proving he didn’t invent the story of what happened to him. In any event, the outcome is predictable. Upon returning to the island, Bill receives a chilly welcome from native inhabitants who don’t want anything to do with Dr. Lorca and his grotesque experiments. Bill’s arrival prompts attacks by mercenaries and monsters, leaving many natives dead. Yet Bill presses on, again for reasons that are never particularly clear, although he finds time to have sex with Myra and to rebuff the advances of a busty native guide. The real weirdness happens in Dr. Lorca’s lab, where he keeps a man’s body and head alive separately. The head, resting in a jar and connected to wires but made up to resemble a vampire that’s been badly burned, taunts Dr. Lorca. Suffice to say that’s more interesting to watch than the sequence of Bill leading an expedition into a haunted mansion, where Myra falls through a trapdoor into a small chamber occupied by an irritable cobra. Boring and stupid, except for a few fleeting moments when it’s insane and stupid, Beast of Blood is shoddy even by the low standards of the many Filipino shockers that Ashley and Romero made together.

Beast of Blood: LAME

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

George! (1972)

          Comic fluff about a bachelor who becomes caretaker for a gigantic Saint Bernard, the Swiss/US coproduction George! is an awkward hybrid of American and European elements. Most of the action takes place in the glorious hills and valleys of the Swiss Alps, and the music is suitable for an Oktoberfest celebration. Yet affable leading man Marshall Thompson, who also produced the picture and wrote the storyline, leads an unmistakably American quality, and the whole enterprise is derivative of a zillion cute-animal pictures from the Disney assembly line. Many scenes feature the gigantic dog knocking objects over, rocking cars back and forth, and smothering people while affectionately licking their faces. Animal lovers and very small children will get more out of this picture than anyone else, because the pleasures of George! are meager and trite. Still, it’s hard to begrudge a gentle comedy celebrating the values of companionship, loyalty, and personal growth. Moreover, if you’re completely unmoved by the novel sight of a Saint Bernard slipping into his favorite resting place, the protagonist’s bathtub, then you’re better at me than resisting canine charms.
          Jim (Thompson) is an American pilot who lives and works in the Alps, enjoying an idyllic existence until his sister asks him to look after George while she takes an extended vacation. At first, George cramps Jim’s style, especially when he tries to reconnect with an old girlfriend, sexy flight attendant Erika (Ingeborg Schöner). After one too many instances of George causing mischief, Jim puts the dog in a shelter. (It’s not as heartless as it sounds.) Alas, George has grown attached to his guardian, so a lengthy escape/rescue sequence involving snow-capped mountains ensues. Dorky and old-fashioned, George! drifts along pleasantly without ever taking flight, so the picture gets by on cuteness and wholesomeness instead of actual hilarity. (Costar Jack Mullaney adds a few caustic moments, to little avail.) Yet it’s not as if the picture strives for something and fails—rather, it aspires to provide generic family entertainment and does so, just barely. Thompson and the big dog reunited shortly after the film’s release for a TV series with the same title, which ran on Canadian television for one season.

George!: FUNKY

Monday, July 10, 2017

Cop Killers (1973)

          Pointless and sadistic but also intense and single-minded, Cop Killers tells the simple story of two longhairs on a crime spree. More specifically, it tells the story of a wannabe drug dealer who realizes that his partner is a psychopath. There’s no hero in this movie, so the dramatic question is how much violence Alex (Bill Osco) can stomach before he stands up to Ray (Jason Williams). Similarly, watching this movie asks viewers how much senseless bloodshed they can endure before looking away. Although Cop Killers is not excessively gory, it’s so relentlessly unpleasant that its magnetism is of the I-can’t-make-myself-look-away variety. Which is not to say that Cop Killers is anything special. On the levels of acting, characterization, and storyline, it’s mediocre at best, and some elements are laughably bad, notably a handful of supporting performances. Yet because the picture starts with action, then follows a straight line from the protagonists acquiring their stash to their final hookup with a buyer, the piece has a certain purity of vision. Cop Killers never pretends to be anything but a lit fuse leading to an explosion. Furthermore, Williams’ starring performance as the unhinged Ray is singularly committed; although his work isn’t particularly skilled, he swings for the fences in every scene.
          The picture opens with the boys collecting five kilos of coke from an air drop in the desert. They’ve made plans to sell the dope for $100,000. A run-in with border-patrol officers leads to gunfire, and by the end of the shootout, four cops are dead. Intoxicated by violence, Ray spends the subsequent journey kidnapping and murdering and raping people. Meanwhile, Alex watches the body count rise. In terms of motivation and plotting, none of this makes much sense, but cowriter/director Walter R. Cichy renders a few sharp moments—the bit with the ice-cream man getting dangled out the door of his truck as it barrels down a remote road is particularly nasty. Cichy also tries, weakly, to give Ray an anti-establishment persona. After the first shootout, Ray castigates Alex for being reluctant to kill police officers, then boasts about his own lethal efficacy: “See that, man? That’s fuckin’ pig blood! If I was scared, that would’ve been my blood!” Is there a thematic reason for all this ugliness? No. But for better or worse, Cop Killers doesn’t cop out.

Cop Killers: FUNKY

Sunday, July 9, 2017

To Find a Man (1972)

          The most intriguing films about teen life avoid oversimplifying young characters, following adolescents through adventures and mishaps as they broaden their worldviews—or don’t. Such is the case with To Find a Man, an offbeat dramedy with the unlikely subject matter of illegal abortion. Making her screen debut, Pamela Sue Martin stars as Rosalind McCarthy, a shallow Catholic schoolgirl who wants to terminate a pregnancy. Hence the title, since the “man” she seeks is not a romantic companion but rather a doctor willing to operate outside the law. Yet Rosalind is only nominally the protagonist, as the story revolves around her best friend, Andy (Darren O’Connor). Their families live near each other in a ritzy Manhattan neighborhood, but even though Andy has developed feelings for Rosalind, he’s never expressed himself. This hidden truth adds yet another layer of emotional weirdness to the situation once Rosalind enlists Andy’s help finding an abortionist. In the film’s best scenes, Andy’s willingness to do anything for Rosalind collides with her inability to behave responsibly. While the film doesn’t overtly slut-shame Rosalind, an understandable sense of bewilderment at her recklessness comes across.
          Based on a novel by S.J. Wilson, To Find a Man was written for the screen by the venerable dramatist Arnold Schulman, whose career includes some spectacular misfires as well as several fine scripts for film and television. He imbues every character in To Find a Man with specificity, from Rosalind’s guy’s-guy father, played by Lloyd Bridges, to a neighborhood druggist, played by Tom Bosley. Yet Schulman achieves his best work where it matters most: Andy and Rosalind. Andy is a bespectacled science nerd who finds the horny blathering of his adolescent pals juvenile, while Rosalind is so spoiled she frets at the prospect of even minor pain. A vivid sketch emerges of two people thrown together by circumstance, challenged by adversity, and changed by their discoveries about each other during the process. It’s a platonic love story of sorts, filled with vivid moments. In one memorable scene, Andy coaches Rosalind through the indelicate matter of providing a urine sample, even as Andy’s savvy housekeeper interrupts several times, sparking comedy-of-errors awkwardness.
          As directed by the reliable Buzz Kulik, To Find a Man strives to balance lighthearted storytelling and serious themes, mostly succeeding in that endeavor. (Some may feel the treatment trivializes the topic of abortion, while others may feel satirical elements don’t go far enough.) In the end, what keeps the piece grounded and interesting is the combination of Schulman’s crisp scripting and the credible performances. Martin does appealingly naturalistic work, incarnating a young woman sure to drive many lovers mad in the future, and O’Connor, who never played another major screen role, is just as good.

To Find a Man: GROOVY

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Timber Tramps (1975)

          Old-fashioned, predictable, and shallow, Timber Tramps features a rare leading performance by burly character actor Claude Akins, who plays a tough logger heading a crew of roving laborers during a season of hard work in Alaska. While the film’s strongest element is extensive location photography—countless shots depict trees felled by axes, explosives, saws, and tractors—Timber Tramps also features a plot, or at least the slenderest approximation of one. The gist is that Matt (Akins) assembles a team of muscular dudes after learning of a lumber concern in Alaska that needs help. Soon Matt discovers that the proprietor of the company is his old flame, and that a young man in her employ is her son, the date of his birth roughly coincidental to the last time she and Matt were together. Yep, everything about Timber Tramps is painfully obvious, right down to cartoonish vignettes of baddies played by Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero discussing plans to sabotage the lumber concern.
          At the beginning of the story, Matt bums around with an older friend, Deacon (Leon Ames), who lives up to his name by periodically looking skyward and asking God for strength. One evening, while getting drunk in a bar, Matt picks a fight with the biggest guy in the room, massive African-American Redwood Rosenbloom (Rosey Grier). As often happens in manly-man movies, the pointless fight leads to instant friendship. These three form the core of the group that heads to Alaska, where Matt reunites with Corey Sykes (Eve Brent). While working for Corey, Matt clashes with his second-in-command, Big Swede (Tab Hunter), leading to another epic fistfight between friendly combatants—for some reason, this picture’s hero spends more time battling buddies than slugging villains. Matt also discovers, about an hour after the audience makes the connection, that he’s the father of Corey’s son.
          As dumb as Timber Tramps is, the movie is basically harmless, the low-rent equivalent of a routine John Wayne flick. One could quibble about Ames’ awkward voiceover or the goofy moment when Deacon has a vision of the angel Gabriel, but there’s not much to be gained by dissecting something this feeble. Better to simply enjoy the dopiest moments, as when Matt challenges Big Swede with this bizarre remark: “You just let your mouth overload your ass!”

Timber Tramps: FUNKY

Friday, July 7, 2017

Stigma (1972)

          Some bad movies curry favor because the incompetence of the filmmaking is endearing, and others win cult followings because the content is so extreme as to be hypnotic. And then there are bad movies on the order of Stigma, which fascinate because the storytelling is profoundly misguided. At various points during its 93 strange minutes, Stigma is a blaxploitation melodrama, a medical thriller, a sexualized psychodrama, and an uptight message movie. Very often, Stigma is just plain weird, as during a meaningless scene of a small-town merchant leading a band practice inside his store by using a plunger as a baton. Throughout, the movie suffers from glaring technical flaws, so even though some scenes are passably rendered, others feature grubby photography and audio that was clumsily added during post-production. Capping the project’s peculiarity is the presence of Philip Michael Thomas in the leading role. Best known for the ’80s series Miami Vice, he’s among the worst actors to earn significant Hollywood careers. Watching Thomas play this mess of a movie straight sends Stigma into the realm of unintentional humor.
          The story takes place on an island off the California coast. Dr. Calvin Crosse (Thomas), recently released from prison after serving a term for performing illegal abortions, arrives in town at the invitation of his mentor. Calvin encounters racism from small-mined locals until reaching his mentor’s house, where he finds the man dead. The mentor was investigating some sort of public-health epidemic, and Calvin discovers an instructional film (!) about STDs. (Nonsensically, the film is hosted by beloved New York City radio personality “Cousin Brucie” Morrow.) Soon Calvin resumes his mentor’s work of alerting locals to the dangers of a disease that’s working its way through the island’s bedrooms. Hence the time Calvin spends at the local whorehouse. Eventually, the good doctor identifies patient zero, thereby opening up a new storyline with incestuous overtones—and this somehow leads to the film’s bizarre two-part climax. First Calvin encounters a group of hippies prepping for a seaside orgy and lays down a heavy rap about STDs, complete with facts and figures. Then a confrontation occurs between patient zero and someone else (no spoilers here), resulting in a wild death scene right out of a horror movie.
          Attempting to determine how the different pieces of this flick fit together would be a threat to anyone’s sanity, because, for instance, the earnestness of the “Cousin Bruce” sequence clashes mightily with the “comedy” of the whorehouse scene. It should also be noted that somewhere amid the muck of the storyline, a minor character shouts this immortal line: “I don’t want to be venereal!” Stigma isn’t one of those quintessential ’70s head-trip movies that makes viewers feel as if they’ve ingested controlled substances, and neither is it one of those bad-taste extravaganzas that leaves viewers slack-jacked at the insensitivity of the filmmakers. It’s a hot mess that arose from what might have been good intentions.

Stigma: FREAKY

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Milpitas Monster (1976)

Judged by the standards of real movies, no-budget creature feature The Milpitas Monster is an unwatchable trainwreck. Appraised in the proper context, however, it’s mildly endearing. Made by a group of high-school students and featuring contributions by citizens throughout the small town of Milpitas, California, the picture is best viewed as an offbeat community project. The acting is abysmal, the camerawork is poor, the special effects are amateurish, and the storytelling is wretched, but one gets a sense of folks having a great time working together on a whimsical endeavor. The narrative concerns a small town under siege by a 50-foot critter that feeds on garbage, so the film delivers an unsubtle message about the environmental impacts of conspicuous consumption. Following the usual creature-feature formula, the movie depicts military mobilizations, scientific efforts to create a weapon useable against the monster, and townsfolk running and screaming whenever the beastie appears. While not persuasive, the illusions the young filmmakers created are resourceful. Effects include a full-sized monster hand, matte shots featuring an actor in a monster suit, and stop-motion animation for scenes in which the creature flies. As for the titular terror, it walks like a mammal but seems more like an insect, with compound eyes and gossamer wings. (Presumably a fly buzzing around waste was the desired analogy.) In any event, the behind-the-scenes story of The Milpitas Monster is infinitely more interesting than the film’s actual content.

The Milpitas Monster: LAME

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Hitch Hike to Hell (1977)

You can almost feel the makers of Hitch Hike to Hell trying to reach for a measure of narrative and thematic legitimacy as they tell the lurid story of a disturbed young man who rapes and kills hitchhikers. Going relatively light on bloodshed and nudity, director Irv Berwick and his collaborators lean more heavily on scenes showing Howard Martin (Robert Gribbin) struggling with social awkwardness between episodes of homicidal rage. After all, Howard blacks out each time he encounters a hitchhiker, so the idea is that he’s nearly as much of a victim as the people he kills. Had Berwick and his collaborators approached this material with more sensitivity and skill, they might have realized the character-study potential of the piece. Alas, the acting, direction, and writing are all as weak as the production values, so instead of seeming like a serious picture with a few extreme elements, Hitch Hike to Hell seems like an extreme picture with a few serious elements—in other words, a trash epic without the courage of its convictions. Some details are interesting. The filmmakers convey a sense of workplace dynamics with scenes of Howard at the drycleaner’s shop for which he drives a delivery van. Similarly, bits of an exhausted local cop trying to convince horrible parents to keep their kids safe from a roving predator almost touch on provocative social issues. But it’s all for naught with the deluge of dumb dialogue and grody murder scenes. And whenever a film’s greatest point of interest is the presence of a Gilligan’s Island cast member, that’s a problem. Russell Johnson, known to millions of TV fans as “The Professor,” intermittently remembers to add pathos to his role as the cop. This is not a highlight of his filmography.

Hitch Hike to Hell: LAME

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Victory at Entebbe (1976) & Raid on Entebbe (1977)

          One of the Me Decade’s most startling real-life events occurred on July 4, 1976, when Israeli commandos raided an airport in Uganda to rescue more than a hundred hostages from Palestinians who hijacked a passenger plane. Filled with larger-than-life individuals, notably crazed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the story of “Operation Thunderbolt” helped define the era during which international terrorism first took root. Almost inevitably, Hollywood pounced on this material, with the first screen dramatization reaching American airwaves six months after the rescue, and a second version airing a month later. Both telefilms feature big-name casts.
          First to air was Victory at Entebbe, a rushed and schlocky melodrama that mostly focuses on dynamics among hostages during their tense incarceration in Uganda. Filmed by director Marvin J. Chomsky with garish lighting and unimpressive production values, Victory at Entebbe suffers badly for the choice to shove the biggest names possible into various roles, no matter the results. Good luck figuring out the genetic math by which parents Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor produce daughter Linda Blair—and have fun scratching your head while Anthony Hopkins plays Israeli Prime Minister Ytzhak Rabin opposite Burt Lancaster as his Minister of Defense. Helmut Berger does forgettable work as lead terrorist Wilfried Böse, and those playing the other hijackers stop just short of twirling moustaches.
          Portraying key passengers, Theodore Bikel, Severn Darden, Helen Hayes, Allan Miller, Jessica Walter, and others do what they can with florid dialogue and overwrought dramaturgy. Way too much screen time is devoted to Blair’s alternately cutesy and whiny performance as a young hostage, the Douglas/Taylor scenes feel like clips from a bad soap opera, and Julius Harris looks cartoonish playing Amin thanks to an ill-advised fat suit. Scenes set in Israel are better, though it’s hard to buy doughy Richard Dreyfuss as fierce commando Yoni Netanyahu. Worse, the Israeli scenes focus on procedural matters, mostly sidelining political ramifications. A final strike against Victory at Entebbe is the use of stock footage for airplane scenes, which greatly diminishes verisimilitude.
          Although the star power of Raid on Entebbe is not quite as impressive as that of the preceding film, the performances are much better. Martin Balsam, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz, Peter Finch, John Saxon, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Warden, and others deliver restrained work, letting the story speak for itself. Only a few players—including Tige Andrews and Stephen Macht—succumb to melodramatic excess. More importantly, Raid on Entebbe has Yaphet Kotto. He’s  dazzling as Amin, conveying the madman’s grandiosity, moodiness, and narcissism. Directed by the versatile Irvin Kershner with docudrama simplicity and the occasional subtle flourish—a sleek camera move here, a dramatic lighting pattern there—Raid on Entebbe unfolds methodically. The opening scene depicts the hijacking without sensationalizing events, and thereafter the movie cuts back and forth between Israel, where officials plan their response, and scenes involving hostages and their captors.
          Eventually, the film resolves into three parallel narratives. The first involves Rabin (Finch) rallying support for military intervention, despite his government’s propensity for endless debate. The second involves the hostages, of whom Daniel Cooper (Balsam) is the unofficial spokesman, watching their fates transfer from the hands of religious zealots to those of an unpredictable tyrant. The third involves units of the Israeli military—under the command of Generals Gur (Warden), Peled (Saxon), and Shomron (Bronson)—figuring how to achieve the impossible. The level of detail in Barry Beckerman’s teleplay is extraordinary, so despite its lengthy running time (two and a half hours), Raid on Entebbe is interesting and thoughtful from start to finish. Better still, the presence of marquee-name actors never eclipses the solemnity of the narrative. (Special note should be made of Finch’s fine performance as Rabin, because this was his last project. He died a week after Raid on Entebbe aired.)
          Yet another dramatization of these historic events emerged soon after the dual telefilms, this time from Israel. Directed by Menaham Golan, Operation Thunderbolt features a mostly Israeli cast, although the intense German actor Klaus Kinski plays Böse and the voluptuous Austrian starlet Sybil Danning costars. Operation Thunderbolt received an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film.

Victory at Entebbe: FUNKY
Raid on Entebbe: GROOVY