Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dirtymouth (1970)



          Three years before Dustin Hoffman channeled controversial comic Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse’s stylish biopic Lenny (1974), a different interpretation of the same true story was presented in the low-budget drama Dirtymouth, written and directed by Herbert S. Altman, with Bernie Travis in the leading role. If neither of those names sounds familiar, it’s because Altman’s only other credit is a horror movie from the ’60s and because Dirtymouth was Travis’ first and last film. Therefore, the surprise of Dirtymouth is not that it exists, but rather that it’s a fairly competent effort. Although the picture problematically whitewashes the real Bruce’s drug use, Dirtymouth does an okay job of tracking the way Bruce’s expression of anti-Establishment attitudes triggered his persecution by authorities.
          When the picture begins, Lenny (Travis) is already an established comedian, but he’s frustrated by doing conventional material in grimy nightclubs, often sharing the stage with novelty acts and strippers. Lenny gradually channels his anger into routines about politics and religion, so word of mouth draws more people to his shows, earning him guest shots on TV shows. Manifesting a self-destructive streak that Altman doesn’t even try to psychoanalyze, Lenny pushes his content by integrating curse words and incendiary remarks, even as he tries to woo the beautiful Iris (Courtney Sherman), whose conservative parents find Lenny despicable. Dirtymouth culminates with re-creations of vignettes from Bruce’s infamous legal battles, with enemies trying to classify Bruce’s comedy as obscenity.
          Comparing Travis’ performance to Hoffman’s in Lenny is unfair, seeing as how Hoffman had the benefit of a better director and a better script, but the portrayals share something in common—both actors get the anger right without actually being funny. Like Lenny, this picture is about Bruce the tragic culture warrior, not Bruce the edgy funnyman. Unlike Lenny, Altman’s film mostly ignores the real Bruce’s hardest edges, so while it’s not as if Altman strives to make Bruce sympathetic, per se, the characterization in Dirtymouth pales next to the prismatic presentation in Lenny. Yet it’s not as if Altman plays things completely straight; in some scenes, he features fantastical visions of Bruce’s routines, and in others, he exaggerates reality, as when actors playing judges and lawyers wear cartoonish makeup. There’s also a fair amount of nudity and rough language. Still, all the half-hearted praise in the world can’t mitigate the Lenny problem—Dirtymouth mined this material first, but Lenny is superior in every way.

Dirtymouth: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Slick Silver (1975)



It’s difficult to actively dislike an amiable regional production like Slick Silver, since one gets a sense of enterprising filmmakers doing their best to emulate tropes they’ve seen in “real” movies while also sharing something of their local idioms with the world. Nonetheless, a dull viewing experience is a dull viewing experience, and Slick Silver never builds much in the way of empathy or momentum. A gentleman named R. Terrell Reagan, who also wrote and executive-produced this project but never made another film, stars as Slick Silver, a fast-talking schemer roaming through Texas and thereabouts. Early in the movie, he befriends a guitar-slinging hitchhiker named Leroy (Hal Fletcher), whom Slick nicknames “Strummer Goldenstring.” Flim-flam ensues. The guys pose as public-health officials and convince a farmer to hand over several chickens by convincing her the birds are victims of a hemorrhoid outbreak. They encounter a traveling preacher, then steal his clothes and leave him tied to a tree while they try to fleece the congregation that was awaiting the preacher’s arrival. They persuade a black guy to pose as their chauffeur so they can run a number on women in a rich neighborhood. And so on. Although most of the actors in the film render generic work, Reagan does a passable con-artist routine, and some of the scams are mildly imaginative. Unfortunately, there’s zero depth of character and the story goes nowhere, so after the first 15 minutes or so, you’ve seen everything Slick Silver has to offer—that is, unless the pie-fight sequence toward the end counts as novelty.

Slick Silver: LAME

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Child (1977)



Horror-flick clichés abound in The Child, a low-budget entry into the creepy-kid genre. Out in the boonies, pretty twentysomething Alicanne (Laurel Barnett) arrives to begin her job as caretaker for Rosalie (Rosalie Cole), the 11-year-old daughter of a nasty old guy who lives in a decaying mansion. (The child’s mother died some time previous, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) Naturally, Alicanne receives warnings about the house (and about the 11-year-old) from a kindly neighbor, and, naturally, she ignores these warnings. All the usual nonsense happens. Strange behavior. Troublesome mysteries. Weird noises. And still Alicanne remains in the house, even as she learns about several recent unsolved murders. Turns out Rosalie has supernatural control over zombie-like creatures, and that she’s guiding her “friends” to murder people whom she feels were complicit in her mother’s death. Inasmuch as it has a steady stream of chase scenes taking place in quasi-atmospheric locations, The Child might have enough shock-cinema mojo to keep undemanding horror addicts entertained. Those who actually want originality, a proper story, or real thrills—not so much. The movie’s shortcomings include distracting dubbing, laughable gore FX, iffy production values, obnoxious music, underwhelming jolts, and weak acting. If only because The Child lacks outright cruelty and misogyny, it’s far from the worst type of ’70s drive-in horror, but that remark should not be misconstrued as praise.

The Child: LAME

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974)



          Sometimes fate does cruel things to artists’ legacies, as demonstrated by the fact that a strange horror movie about cannibalism was the last project from Laurence Harvey, who both starred in and directed Welcome to Arrow Beach, but died at the age of 45 while the film was in postproduction. That Harvey seems wildly miscast in the film’s leading role only adds to the overall strangeness of watching Welcome to Arrow Beach. Born in Lithuania, raised in South Africa, and educated in England, Harvey was most definitely not an American. So why does he play a traumatized Korean War vet living on a California beach? And why is the sister of Harvey’s character played by English actress Joanna Pettet, who looks nothing like Harvey and performs her role with a convincing American accent?
          The story begins with hippie hitchhiker Robbin (Meg Foster) accepting a ride from a hot-rod driver, who crashes soon afterward with Robbin in his car. Cops including Sheriff Bingham (John Ireland) and Deputy Rakes (Stuart Whitman) respond to the accident and discover cocaine that Robbin insists belongs to the driver, who is badly hurt. Weirdly, the cops release Robbin and do nothing while she strolls onto a private beach. Then, while Robbin skinny-dips, Jason Henry (Harvey) ogles her through a telescope from his house above the sand. Later, Jason offers hospitality, which Robbin accepts only when she learns that Jason lives with his sister, Grace (Pettet). Yet Grace isn’t happy to meet Jason’s new houseguest, reminding Jason that he’d promised not to get in trouble with girls anymore. And so it goes from there—Robbin ignores obvious warning signs until a frightening encounter occurs, but once she escapes the chamber of horrors hidden inside Jason’s house, her past encounter with the cops makes them doubt her sensational claims about an upstanding citizen.
          Although the movie takes quite a while to get to the creepy stuff, there’s never any doubt where the story is going, since the first scene includes an epigraph about cannibalism. Therefore the picture lacks real suspense, and the overly mannered quality of Harvey’s acting further impedes the movie’s efficacy as a horror show. In fact, many stretches of Welcome to Arrow Beach edge into camp, as when Harvey cuts repeatedly from closeups of his own eyes to closeups of Foster’s character eating the world’s bloodiest steak. Just as unsubtle is the film’s suggestion of incest: At one point, Harvey and Pettet kiss passionately. Since it’s impossible to take Welcome to Arrow Beach seriously, perhaps  it’s best to regard the picture as drive-in junk with a posh leading actor. After all, the stylistic high point is a scene in which Harvey’s character lures a woman into a photo studio, then switches from holding a camera to holding a meat cleaver.

Welcome to Arrow Beach: FUNKY

Saturday, February 17, 2018

J-Men Forever (1979)



          Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor, two of the guys from counterculture comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre, wrote this silly flick marrying a new soundtrack (and a few new scenes) to selected clips from old Republic serials. Hence the juxtaposition of Captain America, Captain Marvel, Rocket Man, and other characters with verbal jokes about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. There’s a plot, something about an evil DJ called the Lightning Bug trying to take over the world with mind-controlling rock music, but the narrative is just a way of stringing gags together. To Bergman’s and Proctor’s credit, they mostly avoid offensive and/or scatological humor, so J-Men Forever is family-friendly, or at least as family-friendly as a flick about dope-smoking government agents can be. Are most of the jokes dumb and forgettable? Of course. But criticizing the movie for failing to meet standards to which it never aspired seems pointless. Better to contextualize this as a (very) minor link in the chain stretching from What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) to Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and beyond. Repurposing old movie clips may not be the most imaginative style of storytelling, but it’s not the least imaginative, either.
          Bergman and Proctor play “J-Men” in black-and-white clips that are shot to resemble the style of the Republic footage with which new scenes are intercut. They send agents (in the form of Captain America, etc.) to battle the Lightning Bug in his many guises. As for the jokes, the following should tell the tale: “You don’t know disco from Crisco!” “Good morning, Los Angeles, this is K-R-A-P!” And so on. The heroes’ office is in the “J-Men’s Room” of the Pentagon (in “Washington AC/DC”), and instead of yelling “Shazam!” Billy Batson shouts “Sh Boom,” triggering a cover of the old tune “Sh Boom Sh Boom.” The point seems not to satirize the Republic clips, but rather to use the clips as a means of taking the piss out of old-fashioned sensibilities in general. Fair enough. But seeing as how the pop-culture landscape of the ’70s also included National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live and the like, it’s easy to see why the gently derisive J-Men Forever failed to garner much attention.

J-Men Forever: FUNKY

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Orphan (1979)



Drifting along the meandering currents of low-budget horror flick The Orphan are pieces that, assembled differently, might have comprised an offbeat psychological thriller—a little cross-dressing here, a touch of pedophilia there. Alas, how these pieces relate in this context is anyone’s guess. The story is set in the 1930s—anachronistic costumes and hairstyles notwithstanding—and the gist is that after his father dies, preteen David (Mark Owens) receives an unwanted new guardian, Aunt Martha (Peggy Feury). Her disciplinarian ways don’t sit well with David, who enjoys hanging out with Akin (Afolabi Ajayi), the African houseguest who was a friend of David’s late father, and spying on the family’s attractive young maid, Mary (Eleanor Stewart). Another of David’s hobbies is wearing women’s clothes, though at one point he’s interrupted while cross-dressing, so he strips off his bustier, shoves it in a toilet, and flushes, thereby causing the toilet to overflow. If you’re thinking that none of this sounds particularly horrific, how about the dream sequence during which David imagines his tongue being ripped from his mouth? Some murders happen in The Orphan, but they’re presented so cryptically that it’s hard to tell which events are meant to be figments of David’s imagination. Nonetheless, someone must have thought that writer/producer/director John Ballard was onto something, seeing as how ace cutter Ralph Rosenblum was brought in as “editorial consultant” and Janis Ian was hired to write and perform a theme song. Ian’s song is pretty, and one assumes Rosenblum helped strengthen a few moments, but the sum effect of The Orphan is bewildering. FYI, The Orphan was occasionally marketed as Friday the 13th: The Orphan, so the producers of Friday the 13th (1980) had to pay the copyright owners of Ballard’s flick for the use of the title.

The Orphan: LAME

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Keep Off My Grass! (1975)



A brief description makes counterculture comedy Keep Off My Grass! sound promising, since Micky Dolenz (of the Monkees) plays a sweet hippie kid searching for a place where he can nurture his little marijuana plant in peace. Unfortunately, that’s only one piece of a simultaneously overstuffed and underwhelming movie. Keep Off My Grass! begins with retailers on the main drag of a small city upset about hippies loitering in front of their stores. The retailers buy a small abandoned town and give it to the kids, who build their own society from scratch. Predictably, the hippies replicate the same Establishment hang-ups against which they once rebelled: capitalism, law and order, etc.  Done right, this movie could have become an essential satire of its period. Instead, Keep Off My Grass! is drab, shapeless, tonally inconsistent, and visually unimaginative. One subplot concerns a hippie guy who gets possessive about his lady. Another revolves around a young man who upsets his Jewish parents by shacking up with a hippie chick. And the Dolenz material mostly sidelines the endearing pot-plant angle for dreary vignettes of Dolenz’s character trying to lose his virginity. There’s also a needlessly dark subplot about folks living in the small town adjoining the hippie community taking extreme measures to drive the hippies away. Dolenz’s goofy charm isn’t nearly sufficient to make this stuff interesting to watch, especially since he only plays a supporting role, despite marketing materials implying he’s the star. FYI, Keep Off My Grass! features an early screen appearance by future TV star Gerald McRaney, whose casting as the rebellious Jewish kid is a bit of a stretch, and this was the only movie that comedian Shelley Berman ever directed. He did not miss his calling.

Keep Off My Grass!: LAME

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Cry for Me, Billy (1972)



          Many familiar ’70s-cinema textures converge in the bleak Western Cry for Me, Billy, which boasts a handful of riveting scenes but underwhelms overall. The film’s biggest problem is a predictable storyline, so director William A. Graham’s leisurely approach exacerbates inherent sluggishness. Additionally, leading man Cliff Potts, a workaday actor in films and television from the late ’60s to the late ’90s (notwithstanding minor recent appearances), wasn’t up to the task of carrying a movie. Oh, and it should also be noted that despite his prominent billing, the great Harry Dean Stanton only appears in about 10 minutes of the movie, mostly in the beginning and then again toward the end.
          Gun-toting drifter Billy (Potts) wanders into a tiny town, where he observes several Cavalry soldiers withholding water from a group of thirsty Indian prisoners. Incensed, Billy gives water to the prisoners, but later, when several prisoners escape, Billy watches helplessly while the soldiers kill the remaining Indians. Then Billy leaves town and encounters Little Sparrow (Maria Yolanda Aguayo), one of the escapees. She’s a beautiful young woman who for some reason is completely nude until Billy gives her a blanket. Despite a language barrier (the only word she ever speaks in the movie is Billy’s name), the two fall in love. Then, of course, the soldiers return to spoil their idyll, and bloodshed ensues.
          Given the trite narrative, Cry for Me, Billy should be interminable, but several elements redeem the movie. Markson’s dialogue is excellent, and he does a terrific job sketching the minor characters whom Billy and Little Sparrow encounter. Better still, the cinematography by Jorden Cronenweth is gorgeous; in scene after scene, Cronenweth finds clever ways to put the sun behind actors, creating beautiful pictorial depth. Also priaseworthy are brief but effective turns by Stanton, James Gammon, Don Wilbanks, and others. Alas, the main story, though presented with great care, underwhelms until the grim final act. FYI, Aguayo, who later married her costar Potts, was originally billed as “Xochitl,” an Aztec word for “flower,” hence some online sources giving that word as the name of her character. The alias represented a failed attempt to give her screen debut a bit of intrigue.

Cry for Me, Billy: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I Love My Wife (1970)



          Yet another would-be comedy cataloging the “difficulties” of being a successful white dude with a stable marriage, I Love My Wife stars Elliott Gould as Dr. Richard Burrows, a self-centered prick whose insatiable lust masks a deep reservoir of self-loathing. There’s actually a respectable character study buried inside the feeble jokes and wobbly attempts at sex farce, so viewers sympathetic to Gould’s shaggy screen persona might be able to cherry-pick this overlong picture and imagine a better film comprising only the most thoughtful scenes. However, doing so requires tolerance for watching Richard cuckold his long-suffering wife; objectivity and deceive his adoring mistress; and regularly ignore his two children, who didn’t ask to get born into a dysfunctional family. Moreover, those who track down I Love My Wife hoping for sexy laughs are bound to be disappointed—although the movie features a steady procession of attractive women in erotic scenarios, the protagonist is an unbearable putz.
          A prologue shows Richard becoming fascinated with sex during his childhood and, later, losing his virginity to a hooker. Then he meets and marries Judy (Brenda Vaccaro), but she falls from Richard’s favor the minute she reveals she’s not that into oral sex. Worse, she gains weight after bearing his children—hence pitiful scenes of Richard sleeping with a sexy nurse (JoAnna Cameron) and complaining to her that his wife doesn’t understand him. After that dalliance runs its course, Richard aggressively pursues a married model, Helene (Angel Tompkins), who leaves her husband to be with Richard. But of course she’s not enough for him, since no one ever will be. You begin to see how a serious treatment of this material might have clicked, and in fact most of the actors play the material so straight that I Love My Wife feels like a drama much of the time. Alas, it seems writer Robert Kaufman and director Mel Stuart were after hilarity, or at least satire. Viewed from that perspective, the movie’s an utter failure.

 I Love My Wife: FUNKY

Monday, February 12, 2018

Hedda (1975)



          Although the adjective fearless often gets attached to actresses who play dark or uninhibited roles, perhaps no mainstream performer has so consistently earned that description than Glenda Jackson did during her heyday from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. (She continued acting, often in fine projects, through the early ’90s before shifting to a political career.) For some projects, particularly those directed by frequent collaborator Ken Russell, Jackson descended so far into psychosexual darkness as to become feral. Similarly, in films such as this Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play Hedda Gabler, Jackson ignored the conventional impulse to engender audience goodwill. When Jackson essayed monsters, as she does here, she did so to spectacular effect.
          To be fair, calling Ibsen’s complex protagonist Hedda Gabler a monster isn’t exactly correct; while much of what she does is borderline sociopathic, Ibsen ensures that we see what drives her. So does Trevor Nunn, the writer-director of this intense adaptation. Casting the story in an amber glow that counters the ice surrounding Hedda’s twisted heart, Nunn employs intimate compositions that either trap characters together uncomfortably or reveal the distance (metaphorical and physical) between them. Nunn’s film is precise and unflinching, just like Jackson’s explosive leading performance.
          Summarizing the plot does little justice to the grim textures of Ibsen’s narrative, but the broad strokes are as follows. Although Hedda (Jackson) is married to Jorgen (Peter Eyre), a socially inept intellectual of marginal promise, she cruelly flirts with Judge Brack (Timothy West), who wants to have an affair with her. Enter Hedda’s simple friend, Thea (Jennie Linden), who is involved with another intellectual, Eijert (Patrick Stewart—with hair!). Long ago, he and Hedda were lovers, and they still have a dangerous bond. As the story progresses, Hedda identifies which characters are obstacles to her dreams of a comfortable lifestyle, then sets in motion a horrific chain of events.
          Just as none would mistake Hedda Gabler for safe classical theater, none would mistake Hedda for a stodgy stage adaptation. Lurking inside the ornate language and posh costume designs is something truly malignant, a skillful exploration of the million ways people hurt each other. Burning at the center of thing is a remarkable character brought to frightening life by an extraordinary performer. Even when she goes big with a gesture or a monologue, Jackson finds truth in Hedda’s grasping for power—and in her startling realizations of powerlessness. So even though everyone around her does fine work, especially Nunn, this experience is all about the portrayal that earned Jackson, as of this writing, the final of her four Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

Hedda: GROOVY

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Joe Panther (1976)



          Telling the story of a modern-day Seminole Indian youth torn between the limitations of life in his impoverished village and the potential moral compromises of pursuing opportunities in the outside world, Joe Panther is clumsily effective. The story is eventful, the protagonist’s journey is meaningful, and the themes of assimilation and identity create believable points of conflict. Made with more sophistication, Joe Panther might have earned a place among the best coming-of-age stories from the ’70s. Unfortunately, the film falls short of contemporary standards for racial sensitivity thanks to any-minority-will-suffice casting, and thats but one of many flaws. Nonetheless, Joe Panther is commendable for a few moments of genuine emotion as well as at least one scene of thrilling action.
          Living in a close-knit but financially troubled Seminole village near Miami, fatherless Joe Panther (Ray Tracey) worries about how to provide for his mother and his younger brother. Joe isn’t thrilled by his prospects in the village, and it galls Joe to watch his best friend, Billy Tiger (A Martinez), put on alligator-wrestling exhibitions for tourists. When Joe hears about a job on a fishing boat owned by kindly Captain Harper (Brian Keith), Joe accepts a wild challenge as a condition of employment—he must venture into the Everglades and capture an 11-foot gator that Harper’s brother can use as a tourist attraction at his resort. The mission becomes Joe’s trial by fire, especially when his wise Uncle Turtle (Ricardo Montalban) offers ominous warnings about the dangers of the Everglades.
          Casting Latin actors in prominent Seminole roles is distracting, and the thriller subplot that dominates the last third of the movie is a bit much. Yet parts of Joe Panther have real grit. The sequence of Joe trapping a giant alligator is frightening, and the bond that Martinez and Tracey convey is persuasive. So even if the movie often edges into drab formulas, as when both Keith and Montalban give monologues about the meaning of life, the picture’s intentions seem pure. Everything right and wrong about Joe Panther is epitomized by the gentle theme song, which is performed by soft-rock hitmakers England Dan & John Ford Coley—the message is there, but the choice of messengers is highly questionable.

Joe Panther: FUNKY

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974)



          Conceptually, horror-tinged melodrama The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe is fairly sound, offering a fictional set of circumstances to explain why the real Poe wrote stories about macabre subjects. Specifically, the film suggests that Poe (Robert Walker Jr.) fell in love with a beautiful woman named Lenore (Mary Grover), who suddenly fell ill, giving the appearance of death. During her funeral, Lenore awoke and screamed from inside her coffin, so Poe leaped into her grave and rescued her, but the experience drove Lenore insane. With no choice but to institutionalize Lenore, the movie proposes, Poe entrusted his love to Dr. Grimaldi (Cesar Romero), only to discover that Grimaldi was a madman engaged in perverse experiments on the human brain. Tragedy ensued. Executed with style and wit, this storyline could have generated a fantastic hybrid of character study and thriller, weaving allusions to Poe’s famous stories into the narrative. Alas, cowriter/director Mohy Quandour isn’t up to the task, the cast is unimpressive, and the whole production looks cheap.
          Walker, who brought an affecting quality to roles as troubled young men in various films and TV shows of the ’60s and ’70s, cuts an interesting figure as Poe, but he gets stuck in a mopey groove, rendering his performance dull and one-dimensional. It therefore falls to Romero, of all people, to inject the movie with dynamism, but he, too, misses the mark, playing every scene broadly and obviously. As for the film’s thrills-and-chills quotient, don’t get your hopes up. Although the fright-factor highlight should be a long sequence of Poe trapped inside a literal snake pit—as in a soggy dungeon where serpents swim in brackish water—the snakes are too few and small to deliver the desired shock value. And while the picture also boasts lurid subplots about deranged axe murderers and the like, the filmmaking is so amateurish and clunky that Quandour never gets close to the immersive type of darkness the story would have needed to cast a gruesome spell. Points for trying, though.

The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe: FUNKY

Friday, February 9, 2018

Visions of Eight (1973)



          Rather than providing conventional historical contextualization or even straightforward reportage, this arty documentary project from megaproducer David L. Wolper lets eight internationally acclaimed filmmakers offer cinematic sketches of the Olympics, with the 1972 summer games in Munich as their canvas. The terrorist attacks that left 11 Israeli athletes dead receive only passing mention, not out of disrespect but rather because Wolper’s film was designed to celebrate timeless aspects of the Olympics. As with most anthology pictures, Visions of Eight is a hit-or-miss affair, but even the iffy sequences are imaginative, so as a total viewing experience, Visions of Eight is offbeat, unpredictable, and, just as Woper intended, inspirational. Given a clear shape thanks to well-crafted introductory and closing segments overseen by Mel Stewart (who directed Wolper’s beloved 1971 theatrical feature Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), the film moves gracefully between quasi-narrative sequences and experimental passages.
          Yuri Ozerov’s “The Beginning” is among the merely serviceable vignettes. Mai Zetterling’s weight-lifting sequence “The Strongest” loses focus despite flashy cinematography and editing, because Zetterling drifts into random stats (Olympians ate 1.1 million eggs over the course of the ’72 games) and images of computers processing data. Infusing “The Decathalon” with his characteristically antiauthoritarian humor, Milos Forman juxtaposes pageantry with mundane details such as officials yawning between events, and he tips his hand by narrating, “I got to see the Olympics for free and had the best seats.” Arguably the best sequence is Claude Lelouch’s “The Losers,” which offers a poignant alternative to familiar views of triumphant athletes. Innovative Hollywood director Arthur Penn gets a bit carried away with “The Highest,” employing artsy audio drops, slow motion, and soft focus to transform high jumps into audiovisual abstractions, though it must be said that parts of “The Highest” are quite beautiful.
          While Michael Pfleghar’s “The Women” and Kon Ichikawa’s “The Fastest” underwhelm, the former offers a look at celebrated gymnast Olga Korbut in her prime, and the latter celebrates its own technical complexity, since the narration for “The Fastest” explains how 24 cameras and 20,000 feet of film were used to record a 100-yard-dash in granular detail. The final segment, John Schlesinger’s “The Longest,” lives up to its title, offering a repetitive look at an English marathoner.
         Still, Visions of Eight amply rewards the viewer’s attention. The best sequences are terrific, the cumulative abundance of atmosphere and information is impressive, and the license Wolper gave to his collaborators resulted in great stylistic variety. Never lost amid the directorial flourishes is the sincere theme of the piece, which has to do with extolling the values of achievement and community.

Visions of Eight: GROOVY

Thursday, February 8, 2018

W (1974)



To appreciate Hitchcock’s mastery, one need only watch a few movies that try and fail to emulate his Swiss-watch style. W is a silly mystery/thriller about Katie (Twiggy), a young woman tormented by someone who may or may not be her first husband, who may or may not actually be in jail, and who may or may not have committed a murder, because Katie may or may not have framed him as a means of escaping a troubled marriage. Not only does the plot hinge on so many red herrings that it’s tiresome to sort out which things are cinematic misdirection, but the affronts to logic are countless. Even worse, W is boring, despite a few serviceable suspense scenes and solid production values. (Bing Crosby Productions, the folks behind W, fared better with 1971’s killer-rat epic Ben and 1973’s redneck-vigilante opus Walking Tall.) Penned by a cabal of writers including Ronald Shusett, who later co-created the Alien franchise, W follows Katie and her second husband, Ben (Michael Witney), through several episodes of bedevilment—cars rigged to crash, pets brutally murdered, and so on. Eventually, the couple hires a shifty PI, Charles (Eugene Roche), only to discover he’s more of a problem than a solution. As the movie reaches its dippy climax, Katie’s twisted ex shows up in the form of William (Dirk Benedict), a bug-eyed psychopath personifying every cliché associated with bug-eyed psychopaths. It’s all quite leaden, despite sly supporting turns by Roche, Michael Conrad, and John Vernon. Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered why British model-turned-actress Twiggy never did more with the goodwill she earned by starring in Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971), look no further than this flick for an explanation.

W: LAME

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Manny’s Orphans (1978)



          In addition to sequels and a TV series, The Bad News Bears (1976) begat ripoffs including the shameless Here Come the Tigers (1978), directed by future horror-movie icon Sean S. Cunningham. Amazingly, the same year he made Here Come the Tigers, Cunningham made another riff on The Bad News Bears, this time swapping out youth baseball for youth soccer. Manny’s Orphans, which is pleasant enough to watch but painfully formulaic and predictable, concerns an everyman with bad gambling debts who takes a job as the live-in supervisor at an orphanage, then organizes the kids into a soccer team. To the minor credit of Cunningham and his collaborators, the story structure of Manny’s Orphans does not slavishly emulate the plotting of The Bad News Bears, though the gist is similar—a man lacking direction finds himself by guiding children, and the children gain self-esteem by coalescing into an effective team. That said, the characterization, jokes, and style of Manny’s Orphans are primitive compared to the sly textures of The Bad News Bears.
          Manny (Jim Baker) loses his job as the soccer coach at a snooty private school because of his crass manners and disreputable lifestyle. Desperate to pay off a loan shark, he answers a want ad and meets Father McCoy (Malachy McCourt), who needs someone to supervise the boys in his care. Naturally, Manny takes an unusual approach, swearing around the children and playing poker with them. In the usual way of such movies, the kids find his vulgarity endearing. Among feeble subplots, the most important concerns a new arrival at the orphanage, Pepe (Melissa Valentin), who is secretly a girl. (She fled an abusive foster home.) You get the idea. Although Baker’s performance is fairly charming, McCourt is likeable, and some of the juvenile actors render passable work, flat scripting and uninspired direction make Manny’s Orphans monotonous. Still, the picture mostly avoids mean jokes and stereotypes, and the warm-fuzzy ending—no matter how obvious its construction—checks the appropriate boxes.

Manny’s Orphans: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Guess What Happened to Count Dracula? (1971)



Apparently this atrocious horror comedy was first released in 1969 as a gay porno titled Does Dracula Really Suck? (later: Dracula and the Boys). Then, in one of cinema history’s most whiplash-inducing transformations, the picture was recast as a PG-rated monster comedy for the drive-in circuit. Some traces of the original incarnation remain visible, because while the PG-rated version of Guess What Happened to Count Dracula? lacks guy-on-guy action, it has a camp sensibility. The acting is deliberately overwrought, the photography is colorful (as in scenes are lit with randomly tinted gels), and the storyline is a (dim-witted) genre spoof. For those who crave sexed-up bloodsucker comedies, even garbage flicks along the lines of Old Dracula (1974) and Nocturna (1979) are preferable to this eyesore, and it’s insulting to mention Love at First Bite (1979) in this context. Anyway, Count Adrian (Dee Roberts) runs a nightclub/restaurant called “Dracula’s Dungeon,” occasionally preying on customers even though he has a stable of concubines. Other elements of the idiotic narrative include a caged gorilla, exotic dancers, and voodoo rituals. Thanks to heinously bad performances and tacky production values, the movie gets boring fast, so it’s immaterial whether the plot is incomprehensible or just uninteresting. Watching eight minutes of this shapeless sludge is painful, much less all 80.

Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?: SQUARE

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mackintosh and T.J. (1975)



          Roy Rogers ended a decades-long hiatus from leading big-screen roles with Mackintosh and T.J., a gentle character study about an aging ranch hand who befriends a directionless orphan. The movie isn’t as saccharine as it sounds, and Rogers’ unfussy acting serves the material well—beyond slipping into the skin of a specific character, Rogers incarnates the heartland values that defined his screen persona during the ’40s and ’50s. That he eschews certain things with which he’s closely associated—gunplay, singing, tricky horsemanship—keeps the focus squarely on character work. So even though the material is thin, the presence of an iconic actor in a suitable role lends Mackintosh and T.J. something like gravitas.
          At the beginning of the picture, Mackintosh (Rogers) roams the West in his battered pickup truck, looking for a day’s work here and there as he moseys along. In one town, he watches a tough sheriff hassle T.J. (Clay O’Brien), a 13-year-old kid who’s given up on foster homes and orphanages, hence an arrest for vagrancy and orders from the sheriff to vamoose. Mackintosh frees the kid from trouble with the law, so they travel together for a spell, becoming friends. Once Mackintosh lands an open-ended job on a cattle ranch, he swings a gig for T.J. as well, and they begin to set down roots until intrigue reveals their situation is precarious.
          Because this movie’s plot is unhurried to a fault, many viewers will grow impatient waiting for complications to arise, but once things get going, Mackintosh and T.J. goes to darker places than one might expect. As directed by journeyman helmer Marvin J. Chomsky, the picture never quite achieves lyricism, though original songs by Waylon Jennings are used effectively to frame the overall narrative. And because the supporting cast is filled with competent players (Walter Barnes, Billy Green Bush, Joan Hackett, James Hampton, Andrew Robinson), the movie is never less than polished. Arguably the picture’s biggest flaw is the choice to withhold crucial backstory about Mackintosh until very late in the running time, but one imagines the notion was to let the character’s actions define him until it became absolutely necessary to reveal secrets.
          In any event, Rogers does something interesting by adding colors of age, loss, and regret into the portrait of the quintessential American man he’d sketched so many times previously in his younger years.

Mackintosh and T.J.: FUNKY

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Wheeler (1975)



Wannabe thriller Wheeler, also known by titles including Psycho from Texas, has fans among those who relish bad cinema, and it’s not hard to see why. The plot is derivative schlock about a twisted redneck drifter who abuses women because he was traumatized during childhood by watching his prostitute mother service clients. Fair enough, except for the way the filmmakers illustrate this concept—flashbacks featuring awkward cuts between shots of Mom getting screwed and shots of an angelic little boy crying. Shameless. Adding to the film’s craptastic allure is the bizarre performance by leading man John King III, who elongates and emphasizes random words, somewhat in the style Christopher Walken later employed to more deliberate effect. Watching Wheeler, one gets the sense of an actor struggling to read cue cards that are held too far away for him to see clearly. And then there’s that damn chase scene. In the storyline, Wheeler (King) and his buddy Slick (Thomas Knight Lamey) kidnap a retired oilman, but the oilman escapes—so for a good 40 minutes of the movie, the filmmakers repeatedly cut to Slick chasing the oilman. Beyond how dull and repetitious these vignettes are, the chase scene defies logic since Slick is young and healthy while the oilman is middle-aged and doughy. The capper on this dispiriting cinematic experience is an interminable scene during which Wheeler forces a pretty waitress to strip naked and gyrate while he empties a pitcher of beer onto her. Gross.

Wheeler: LAME