Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Portnoy’s Complaint (1972)



          Success inevitably creates demand for a repeat performances, hence this Philip Roth adaptation starring Richard Benjamin—a follow-up to the well-received Goodbye, Columbus (1969), which had the same actor/source material combo. Alas, Portnoy’s Complaint did not fare well, as represented by the fact that the picture began and ended the directorial career of Ernest Lehman, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed screenwriters. Whereas Goodbye, Columbus leavened its harshest elements with tenderness, Portnoy’s Complaint is unremittingly loud and vulgar. The film is not without its virtues, thanks partly to the psychosexual preoccupations of the source material and partly to the skill of the actors on display—but the picture is as fake and mean-spirited as Goodbye, Columbus is authentic and humane.
          Benjamin plays Alexander Portnoy, a horny civil servant who becomes involved with uninhibited fashion model Mary Jane Reid (Karen Black). Not only is she a Gentile, fulfilling one of self-hating Jew Alexander’s deepest fantasies, but she’s also nicknamed “Monkey” because of her agility during sex. The nearly illiterate Mary Jane is a plaything for Alexander, who gets to feel superior while lecturing her about culture and virile while driving her wild in bed. Yet the more she pushes for a real relationship, the more he cuts at her self-image with insults and sarcasm. Revealing that Alexander eventually drives Mary Jane to suicide doesn’t spoil Portnoy’s Complaint, because the movie is framed by an extended therapy session during which Alexander explores his guilt over the way he treated Mary Jane. He also works through his relationship with his oppressive mother, Sophie (Lee Grant), as well as his addiction to masturbation.
          One must admire Lehman’s commitment to presenting Alexander so unflinchingly—and since Jack Nicholson got away with playing men like this many times, the no-prisoners approach was not unprecedented. Yet very little in Portnoy’s Complaint works. The movie is brisk and slick, but it’s neither erotic nor illuminating. Instead, it comes across like a misguided morality tale wrapped inside a poorly constructed dirty joke. Still, Portnoy’s Complaint features a wild array of acting styles. Black has a few supple moments before slipping into harpy mode; the hopelessly miscast Grant plays for the cheap seats; Jill Clayburgh lends fire to a small part as a woman invulnerable to Alexander’s charms; and Jeannie Berlin, best of all, lends humor and pathos to the role of a bedraggled woman whose encounter with Alexander goes awry.

Portnoy’s Complaint: FUNKY

Thursday, May 17, 2018

French Quarter (1978)



          Since the Crown International logo usually heralds low-budget movies that disappoint in predictable ways, it’s worth singling out French Quarter, which disappoints in unpredictable ways. At first, the movie adheres to the familiar little-girl-lost style, tracking a naïve young woman who stumbles into sex work. Then the picture makes a hard turn into period melodrama, with nearly an hour of the 101-minute film set in the 19th century. Nestled into the period material are subplots about a drug-addicted lesbian, a friendship between a white piano player and his black counterpart, and voodoo rituals. Both timelines feature auctions in which bidders compete for the privilege of deflowering a young woman. There’s a lot going on in French Quarter, so even though the movie is thoroughly contrived and silly, none could accuse the filmmakers of playing it safe.
          After her father dies, Christine (Alisha Fontaine) leaves her rural home and becomes an exotic dancer. One day, she’s drugged by a crook who plans to auction off Christine’s virginity. Then, by way of a hallucination or time travel or whatever, Christine becomes Trudy, the newest arrival at a New Orleans brothel. The same crisis ensues, with Trudy’s virginity getting put up for sale. Hope emerges in the form of a romance with Kid Ross (Bruce Davison), the new piano player in the brothel, who also bonds with black musician Jelly Roll (Vernel Bagneris). For reasons that defy understanding, co-writer/director Dennis Kane takes a prismatic approach to the story, exploring the lives of other prostitutes, some of whom have colorful names including “Big Butt Annie,” “Coke-Eyed Laura,” and “Ice Box Josie.” Yet Kane also makes room for lengthy stripping scenes, a Sapphic makeout session, and the aforementioned voodoo rituals. It’s a mess, with one scene attempting sensitive character work and the next presenting grindhouse sleaze, so French Quarter ultimately has little of interest for serious viewers.
          Those who savor bizarre cinema might find French Quarter more palatable. The cast blends starlets including Lindsay Bloom and Ann Michelle with cult-fave actors Bruce Davison and Lance LeGault—plus Virginia Mayo, a 1940s star appearing here in grand-dame mode. It should be noted that every so often, the picture almost gets something right, as in this hard-boiled voiceover: “If there’s one thing I know about New Orleans, anybody who wants something real bad is gonna get it real bad.” Incidentally, French Quarter came out the same year as Pretty Baby, a controversial studio picture with similar subject matter, and actor Don Hood plays minor roles in both films.

French Quarter: FUNKY

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Brotherly Love (1970)



          Adapted by James Kennaway from his play Country Dance (the title under which this British/American coproduction was released in the UK), Brotherly Love features Peter O’Toole at his most gloriously unhinged, with elegant Susannah York providing an effective counterpoint. The movie is long-winded, pretentious, and unpleasant, but in some ways those qualities are virtues—although Brotherly Love lacks true resonance, it has a certain sort of twisted integrity. The gist of the piece is that Sir Charles Ferguson (O’Toole) is a deranged aristocrat who enjoys complicating the relationship between his sister, Hilary (York), and her estranged husband, Douglas (Michael Craig), although none dare name the reason why until the final confrontation. By that point, of course, viewers have gleaned that Sir Charles’ affection for Hilary goes beyond the normal feelings of one sibling for another. Unanswered questions include how aware Hilary is of her brother’s incestuous interest, and how she truly feels about his ardor. In one scene, for instance, she rises from a bathtub so Sir Charles can drape her with a towel before removing his own modest covering and slipping into the bathwater.
          Woven into the storyline is a thread about Sir Charles attempting self-destruction, as when he deliberately fires a shotgun a few inches from his ear, and another thread about Sir Charles devolving into madness. O’Toole plays this psychosexual stuff with his usual mixture of authority and obnoxiousness. In some scenes, he’s remarkably sensitive as he weaves through complex dialogue and intricate behavior—but in other scenes, he simply shouts for emphasis, bludgeoning the already-questionable textures of Kennaway’s script. Not helping matters is the presence behind the camera of director J. Lee Thompson, a man best known for helming violent thrillers. He’s beyond his ken here, incapable of creating or maintaining a consistent tone. Thompson’s emphatic scenes are tiresome, and his quiet scenes are just tired. Only the dexterity of the cast and the visual interest of Scottish locations keep the piece watchable at its most undisciplined. That said, all involved deserve praise for the understated final showdown between Sir Charles, Douglas, and Hilary—that one moment, played in a dark basement, has the grounded anguish missing from the rest of the movie.

Brotherly Love: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Speeding Up Time (1971)



Blaxploitation sludge made on a pathetic budget, Speeding Up Time has something to do with a young writer tracking down the crooks who killed his mother by burning down her house while she was inside. Yet it’s a struggle to parse even that simple premise, given writer/director John Evans’ inept storytelling. Either he ran out of money or simply forgot to collect important footage, but either way, this film comes across as a the rough assembly for perhaps two-thirds of a movie, with zero effort put into creating placeholders or transitions to cover the gaps. The fact that Speeding Up Time found its way not only into theaters but also onto home video speaks more to the ravenous appetites of those exhibition platforms during the ’70s and ’80s than anything else. Anyway, here’s some of the nonsense that happens. Our hero, Marcus (played by the fabulously named Winston Thrash), visits a poet who inspires Marcus to repeat the phrase “I am prepared” several times. Prepared for what? Who knows? Who cares? Later Marcus wakes from a dream (or premonition or whatever) about his mom’s house burning down, then snaps at his mother for suggesting he settle down. After that, Marcus works on his writing in the bathroom until the toilet overflows, ruining his work. Wait, all this time I haven’t stored my only copies of documents on bathroom floors? I knew I was doing something wrong! Eventually, Marcus zooms his vintage car through a drive-in lot during a tepid chase scene, gets it on with a young lady during a crudely shot sex scene, and makes aggressive remarks to gangsters. Oh, and just to create the illusion of political relevance, he also spews some vaguely revolutionary jive.

Speeding Up Time: SQUARE

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Welcome Home Soldier Boys (1971)



          Something of a thematic predecessor to the Sylvester Stallone hit First Blood (1982), this grim melodrama depicts the travails of four Green Berets who return to the U.S. after service in Vietnam, only to discover that their personalities are so fundamentally changed by their harrowing overseas experiences that they no longer fit into normal society. Released amid the first wave of pictures exploring the impact of PTSD on Vietnam vets, writer-director Guerdon Trueblood’s movie has as many problems as it does virtues. The character work is thin, the psychology is dubious, and the story becomes cartoonish toward the end. Yet alongside Trueblood’s countless missteps are several vivid moments, a pervasive sense of melancholy, and a propulsive overall narrative—even though it’s hard to believe a lot of what happens, viewers never doubt that something terrible is imminent.
          Leading the vets is Danny (Joe Don Baker), a hulking country boy enamored of traveling to California with his comrade-in-arms, Kid (Alan Vint), in order to start new lives as farmers. The plan is to raise some hell along the way, accompanied by Fatback (Elliot Street) and Shooter (Paul Koslo). Viewers’ first clue that all is not right with the group occurs when they pick up a sexy hitchhiker, take turns with her, and toss her out of a moving car when she has the temerity to ask for money. The vets share a moment of panic before pressing onward as if they just narrowly escaped a skirmish with enemy combatants. Later, things get even more debauched when a creepy hotel clerk (Geoffrey Lewis) gives the vets the run of his place while also providing a steady supply of booze and women. By the time the group reaches Danny’s childhood home, they’ve crossed some point of no return, morally speaking. Violence becomes inevitable.
          It’s hard to imagine what Trueblood might have done differently to put this thing over, since Welcome Home Soldier Boys operates well outside human reality for much of its running time, and the climax is as outrageous as it is disquietingat some point the picture transitions from metaphorical to silly. Nonetheless, the actors, Baker especially, convey a sense of tragedy, as if the vets don’t realize how deeply years of killing for Uncle Sam scarred their souls. The vets also seem bewildered by the scorn they encounter from civilians. In one scene, Danny reveals to a woman that he’s killed 113 people. She laughs. Small moments like that resonate even when Trueblood’s clumsy attempts at grandiosity don’t.

Welcome Home Soldier Boys: FUNKY

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Bridge in the Jungle (1971)



Here’s one of cinema’s stranger footnotes. More than 20 years after directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), John Huston participated in another adaptation of a novel by B. Traven. Yet this time Huston’s involvement was limited to acting, and that’s where the connections between the two films end, despite claims in online and print sources that The Bridge in the Jungle is a sequel to Sierra Madre. It is not. The Bridge in the Jungle tells two stories that intersect awkwardly. First the picture follows Gales (Charles Robinson), an alcoholic hunter who ventures into more and more dangerous areas to claim valuable crocodile hides. He encounters Sleigh (Huston), an American expat who settled in a small Mexican village, and it emerges that Gales is on a revenge mission. Just when this storyline starts cooking, The Bridge in the Jungle lurches into a separate plot about a young Mexican mother fretting over the disappearance and possible drowning of her son. Huh? Writer, producer, and director Pancho Kohner captures lots of local color, but he’s inhibited by the meandering narrative and by an overreliance on amateurish actors. The latter problem is exacerbated by the presence of old pros Huston and Katy Jurado. Worse, the entertainment value of watching Huston growl crotchety dialogue (“You crocodile hunters are a seedy, ignorant bunch”) wears off once it becomes clear his character is tangential at best. As a result of its myriad storytelling problems, the movie carries an unpleasant aroma of pointlessness, even though the technical execution is fine.

The Bridge in the Jungle: LAME

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Not the End . . .


Exactly seven and a half years after I started this project, today marks the conclusion of daily posting here at Every ’70s Movie—but that doesn’t mean the project is done. Regular readers should think of today as the beginning of a new phase. After all, the subject matter of this blog is finite: There were only so many American-produced feature films released on U.S. screens between January 1, 1970, and December 31, 1979, especially if one excludes hardcore porn. While my parameters also encompass key documentaries and foreign films, as well as a representative sample of made-for-TV movies, it was inevitable that I would hit a wall in terms of getting access to films for review purposes. As of this writing, I have pathways to seeing about a dozen more titles, and I’ll get to those over the course of the next month or so. I might also parachute back into the realm of TV movies and write up a few interesting titles that caught my attention while conducting research. And of course I welcome suggestions from readers about “new” titles—after seven and a half years of investigating this topic, nothing surprises me more than learning about some film that escaped my notice. Generally speaking, however, if a ’70s movie isn’t on this blog (notwithstanding the aforementioned in-progress reviews), it’s because the film isn’t readily available through home video or streaming or a reputable archive. Please contact me if you know of a legitimate video source for an obscure title. Anyway, that’s all for now, but I’ll be back next week to kick off the new phase—occasional reviews as movies become available. Until then, as always, keep on keepin’ on!

Apple Pie (1976)



          Stating that Apple Pie isn’t the weirdest ’70s transmission from Manhattan’s artistic fringe might be accurate, but the remark downplays the films peculiarity. For while Apple Pie mostly lacks the psychosexual perversity one usually associates with grungy 16-millimeter experiments issuing from Alphabet City squats or SoHo lofts, the picture is strange enough to alienate most viewers. Yet after weaving its way through a number of bizarre situations, some of which have a John Waters-esque satirical edge and some of which are merely freeform expressions, writer-director Howard Goldberg’s movie resolves into an epic musical number, resulting in several of the most joyous minutes you’ll encounter in ’70s cinema. On a personal note, that represents what I’ve enjoyed most about this project: making unexpected discoveries through persistent archaeology.
          Goldberg builds Apple Pie around Tony Azito, a Julliard-trained actor/dancer who found most of his success on the stage but also enjoyed a minor screen career in the ’80s and ’90s prior to his death at the age of 46 in 1995. Playing a number of characters, most prominently an eccentric rich kid who occasionally flits around town in a bat costume, Azito is in nearly every scene, and he’s an unlikely leading man. Gangly and very tall, with a gaunt face and a receding hairline, he’s the physical type most directors would cast as a background creep. Azito modulates his voice absurdly, like he’s either channeling psychosis or practicing different cartoon characters. He shimmies his body at random intervals, as if he’s having seizures or indulging sudden urges to boogie. Therefore one of Apple Pie’s most intriguing (or infuriating) aspects is that Goldberg lets Tony be Tony, no matter where the performers singular muse takes him.
          If youre wondering why the plot of the film hasn’t yet been described, it’s because only certain portions of Apple Pie have contiguous narrative. The first scenes involve a gangster of some sort meeting with cronies (one of whom is played by future David Letterman costar Calvert DeForrest). Then the picture shifts into its most heavily plotted sequence, during which Jacques (Azito) fakes his own kidnapping in order to rob his parents. (Playing Jacques’ father is NYC oddball Brother Theodore.) This material transitions into a performance-art/surrealism passage, during which Jacques (in his bat costume) meets a bunch of artists on a rooftop. One of them, played by future TV star Veronica Hamel, wears an outlandish costume and demonstrates her talent: causing her face to disappear. It’s all quite bewildering, especially because of Azito’s goofy dialogue (“I don’t cry when I’m watching porno—I’m into emotional S&M!”). Plus what’s a downtown freakshow without at least one scene of characters smearing each other with food? This stuff goes on and on and on, even though Apple Pie is only 80 minutes long, until Goldberg segues into his final sequence.
          As bright as the rest of the film is dark, the final sequence is a dance number on a city street. Azito strolls onto the block, coaxes kids to start banging out a rhythm with found objects, and starts dancing. Then others join the fun—women exiting a restaurant, locals stepping out of their homes, even a wino climbing up from a pile of garbage. Once it reaches cruising altitude, the scene is a happy explosion, with some dancers on cars and fire escapes, all grooving to the same rhythm. Others have suggested this scene inspired a similar moment in Fame (1980), noting that Irene Cara, who starred in that picture, is one of the dancers in the finale of Apple Pie. Be that as it may, the dance jam is almost reason enough for those who dislike downtown artiness to explore Apple Pie. If nothing else, the dance jam is a great showcase for Azito, who later earned a Tony nomination for a 1980 revival of The Pirates of Penzance. The man could move.

Apple Pie: FREAKY

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Antonio (1973)



          Parallel to his music career, affable Tejano singer Trini Lopez dabbled in acting for movies and TV, notably appearing in The Dirty Dozen (1967). Apparently eager for a starring role, Lopez produced this low-budget comedy, which was shot entirely in Chile. He plays a naïve potter who lives in a small seaside village with his wife and their young son. One day, a boisterous American (Larry Hagman) arrives by boat in the local port and unloads precious cargo—a brand-new Mercedes. When the car malfunctions, Antonio keeps the wayward American company. When Hagman’s character grows impatient with life in a tiny town and makes other travel arrangements, he gives the inoperative car to Antonio. Most of the story dramatizes complications that the illusion of sudden wealth creates for a man who lives among desperately impoverished neighbors. So in essence, this is an old-fashioned fairy tale capped with a twist ending. Alas, many aspects of Antonio are questionable, from the thin story to amateurish supporting performances.
          Characterizations are a special problem, because nearly everyone onscreen is one-dimensional, beginning with the blandly saint-like Antonio. Since the sole exception is Hagman’s character, it’s probable Hagman embellished his scenes—wearing a gaudy fringe jacket and decorating moments with comedic eye-rolls and face-plants, Hagman tears through the movie like a tornado. Yet this is Lopez’s show, and he’s not up to the task. Alternating between a confused grimace and a dopey smile, Antonio seems too childlike to function in the real world, and most of his decisions are foolish—not least the arbitrary choice to drop everything in order to entertain a stranger. That Antonio occasionally picks up a guitar to sing a bouncy song in that familiar Trini Lopez style merely adds to the clumsiness of the film. If Antonio is sophisticated enough to play and sing pop songs, then why . . . ? Pondering these sorts of things is likely beside the point. Antonio is a gentle homily designed for undemanding viewers, and as such it’s basically adequate.

Antonio: FUNKY

Monday, April 9, 2018

French Postcards (1979)



          There’s a tendency among cinemaniacs of a certain age to romanticize the so-called “Film School Mafia” of early ’70s, as if everyone in the Coppola/Lucas orbit was a genius. What, then, to make of husband-and-wife collaborators Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz? Most of their showiest jobs have been gifts from Lucas, and even though they helped script American Graffiti (1973), they also made Howard the Duck (1986). Projects that Huyck and Katz put together on their own are unimpressive, as evidenced by the youth comedy French Postcards, the first big-budget movie directed by Huyck. Despite featuring mildly erotic elements, French Postcards bucks the trend of late-’70s college pictures by opting for PG-rated laughs instead of hard-R raunch. Admirable as the film’s restraint might be, however, other aspects of French Postcards are frustrating or worse.
          The setup is straightforward: Three American students spend a year in Paris and have romantic adventures. Generally speaking, the Huyck/Katz script transitions smoothly from one episode to the next, though one of the parallel storylines nearly dies for lack of oxygen (more on that in a minute). Joel (Miles Chapin) is a good student who needs a push to leave his dorm room and explore Paris, but he somehow gets laid on his first date with sexy retail clerk Toni (Valérie Quennessen). Wannabe songwriter Alex (David Marshall Grant) becomes infatuated with the exchange program’s alluring headmistress, Madame Catherine (Marie-France Pisier), who conveniently discovers that her husband is unfaithful. Meanwhile, Laura (Blanche Baker) spends lots of time investigating French historical sites (to the bizarre accompaniment of Raymond Chandler-ish voiceover) until she tumbles into a romantic-triangle situation. The Joel/Toni storyline gets at puritanical American attitudes, since he can’t handle her past promiscuity. The Alex/Catherine storyline is pure bedroom farce. And the Laura business is pointless until she meets the picture’s only memorable character, an obnoxious Persian lothario played by scene-stealing Mandy Patinkin. (The other future star in the cast is Debra Winger, wasted in a tiny supporting role.)
          On a conceptual level, French Postcards is fine. Digging any deeper reveals serious problems. Not only do Huyck and Katz predicate their story on the stereotype that all French people are libertines, but the filmmakers can’t seem to decide whether they’re making a broad comedy or a gentle character study. Half the time it seems they’re going for Billy Wilder-esque hilarity and missing the mark. Elsewhere it seems they’re after faux-European ambiguity, somewhat in the Paul Mazursky tradition. Huyck and Katz fare better with that stuff, but too often they undercut nuanced moments with dumb jokes. Similarly, leering shots of Pisier in sexy outfits (or less) nudge the picture into bland male fantasy.
         One last thing: Someone on the filmmaking team gets points for the running joke of Gallic cover songs, because it’s fun decoding the French versions of “Do You Believe in Magic,” “You’re the One That I Want,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

French Postcards: FUNKY

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Something Evil (1972)



          Fans can argue about which project represents Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length directorial endeavor, since he made a lengthy amateur film in 1964 and helmed a pair of 90-minute TV episodes, including the first regular installment of Columbo, in 1971. Yet the excellent made-for-TV thriller Duel is generally considered his proper cinematic debut because it’s a stand-alone project distinguished by Spielberg’s trademark visual imagination. Three years later, Spielberg graduated to theatrical features with The Sugarland Express (1974), and then came Jaws (1975). Nestled within Spielberg’s filmography, however, are two mostly forgotten telefilms. They represent his sole output for the years between Duel and The Sugarland Express, steps along his path from promising newcomer to certified wunderkind.
          The first of these pictures, Something Evil, is unimpressive. A story about demonic possession with a suspicious resemblance to The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s hit 1971 novel, the picture stars Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin as a New York City couple who impulsively move to a house in the country. Written without much subtlety or verve by Robert Clouse (who later found success as a director of action films), Something Evil hits nearly every cliché imaginable. The kooky neighbor warning about evil spirits as he performs weird rituals. The strange noises emanating from various places late at night. The inexplicable changes in people’s behavior. The equally inexplicable denial by rational people that something strange is happening. So while the setup is simple enough and the climax has a small supernatural kick, most of Something Evil is boring—not a word one generally associates with Spielberg.
         Dennis isn’t especially interesting to watch, McGavin gets shoved offscreen for long stretches, and juvenile actor Johnny Whitaker (previously of the TV series Family Affair) is a generic Hollywood kid. There’s also not enough screen time for enjoyable supporting players Ralph Bellamy and Jeff Corey. Thus the only real novelty stems from searching for hints of Spielberg’s prodigious talent. A few scenes in Something Evil are shot well, with dramatic angles and moody lighting, but the whole thing feels so enervated and rushed that it’s hard to believe the same man made magic of out Duel the previous year. Maybe he was tired after rigging all those cool shots of tires and highways.

Something Evil: FUNKY

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sunset Cove (1978)



Teen-sex comedy Sunset Cove has a serviceable premise, because it depicts horny adolescents from different cliques joining forces to protect a stretch of California coastline from avaricious developers. Yet learning that the film was directed by Al Adamson should give an indication of the many ways the picture squanders its potential. Although Sunset Cove is coherent by Adamson standards, inasmuch as the movie never gets lost in nonsensical subplots, everything is substandard. The acting is weak, the camerawork is rushed, the storytelling is sloppy, and the tone is all over the place. Many scenes aim for light comedy, as when kids jump into hang-gliders so they can buzz a splashy party thrown by the developers, but at one point Adamson stops the movie dead for an endless sex scene set inside a van, complete with repetitious shots of a buxom girl shoving her breasts into a dude’s face and rubbing her hand across the front of his shorts. For an interminable three minutes or so, Sunset Cove morphs from brainless comedy to sleazy softcore. Making bad movies worse was Adamson’s special gift. Notwithstanding a brief appearance by John Carradine as a retired judge, nobody familiar appears in the cast, and several of the one-dimensional characters have nicknames including “Bubbles,” “Chubby,” and “Moose.” As for the nominal protagonist, he’s ostensibly a straight-arrow nerd, as evidenced by his eyeglasses. His inexplicable transformation into a drunken streaker who propositions a girl after inadvertently seeing her naked is par for the course.

Sunset Cove: LAME

Friday, April 6, 2018

Starbird and Sweet William (1973)



The polite way to characterize low-budget family film Starbird and Sweet William is to say that it’s a harmless story about a young Native American learning to bond with nature. Yet that description cuts Starbird and Sweet William too much slack. Not only is the movie cloying and dull, but the leading actor is Latino, so the film’s portrayal of race is about as authentic as the notion of a man forming a surrogate family with a bear, a crow, and a raccoon. Everything about Starbird and Sweet William is fake, right down to the ridiculous ending during which a brand-new character appears just in time to rescue the protagonist from mortal danger. At the beginning of the film, Starbird (A. Martinez), whose tribal affiliation is never specified, leaves his reservation and takes a job as an airplane mechanic. One day, he steals a small plane for a joyride, then crashes in the Southwestern wilderness. Despite a broken arm and a shortage of supplies, Starbird survives long enough to bond with the aforementioned critters; the “Sweet William” of the title is an orphaned bear cub with whom Starbird frolics in syrupy musical montages. For most of its running time, the film has virtually no plot, instead presenting an outdoor travelogue buttressed by folksy narration courtesy of Rex Allen. (Sample: “Seeing the baby foxes and the deer, Starbird had a warm feeling of kinship with his brothers, the animals—something he’d never really felt before.”) When the filmmakers finally introduce conflict through the arrival of hunters late in the second act, it’s abrupt, clumsy, and woefully insufficient for sparking dramatic interest.

Starbird and Sweet William: LAME

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Once in Paris . . . (1978)



          Figuring out why the intelligent comedy Once in Paris . . . failed to score at the box office doesn’t take much work. After alienating fans by leaving the hit sitcom M*A*S*H in 1975 and then floundering through inconsequential TV projects, Wayne Rogers didn’t bring much goodwill to his first big-screen starring role. Leading lady Gayle Hunnicut wasn’t a major draw, either. And the folks tasked with selling the picture faced a daunting challenge: Despite containing a storyline about a sexual affair, Once in Paris . . . is primarily a bromance pairing Rogers with Gallic charmer Jack Lenoir. All in all, it’s amazing the picture got made. Nonetheless,  those willing to accept the film on its own terms might enjoy what they discover.
          Michael Moore (Rogers) is an American screenwriter summoned to Paris for a rewrite job. He’s met at the airport by chauffeur Jean-Paul (Lenoir), who personifies joie de vivre. To Jean-Paul, every traffic jam is an adventure, every beautiful woman is a miracle, and every new day is an opportunity for drinking and gambling and laughter. First Michael keeps Jean-Paul at arm’s length, opting to focus on work. But once it becomes clear the rewrite won’t take much effort, Michael accepts Jean-Paul’s invitation to see the real Paris: playing petanque in parks with old men, placing wagers at a horse track, visiting the restaurant that Jean-Paul’s mistress owns, and so on. Eventually, Michael’s new friendship creates problems. When the lonely screenwriter becomes preoccupied with Susan (Hunnicut), an aristocratic beauty staying in the same hotel, Michael heeds Jean-Paul’s advice to pursue a tryst, even though Michael has a wife and children back in Los Angeles. And so it goes from there.
          Flaws plague this film. Michael is condescending, fragile, reckless, and self-involved, with retrograde attitudes toward women. Moreover, Susan is portrayed as a vapid slut despite Gilroy’s weak attempts at rounding out her characterization. By current cultural standards, Once in Paris . . . is offensive. Viewed through the prism of its time, however, the movie has personality and soulfulness, even if one suspects that Gilroy would have preferred Jack Lemmon in the lead rather than the bland Rogers. Finally, it’s worth noting that Gilroy notched a WGA Award nomination for his script, because his peers likely reacted to the film’s strongest element: the delightful rendering of Jean-Paul as an amiable rake whom a straightlaced family man might dream of someday befriending.

Once in Paris . . . : FUNKY

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Paco (1976)



Sloppily constructed family film Paco ostensibly tells the story of a little Colombian boy (Panchito Gómez) who travels from the country to the crowded streets of Bogotá in search of his wayward uncle. Yet the most interesting material is a subplot revealing the uncle’s vocation—he’s a Fagin-like mastermind controlling a network of street urchins who steal to pay off loans that he offers at usurious interest rates. As played by the elegant José Ferrer, this character is infinitely livelier than a generically heartbroken little boy on walkabout. Yet relegating the most colorful person onscreen to secondary status isn’t the only storytelling error made by the creators of Paco. In the film’s most peculiar sequence, Pernell Roberts shows up to play a flamboyant gangster. How flamboyant? Roberts’ big scene literally takes place on a theater stage, with the actor flitting about in a cape while issuing dialogue like thunder and decorating lines with dramatic hand gestures. It’s a mystery how Roberts’ showboating relates to the rest of the picture, because by that point the wheels have gone completely off the bus. After all, we haven’t even mentioned the silly stuff at the beginning of the picture involving a priest (Allen Garfield) whose signature move is belching and then turning his eyes skyward so he can apologize to God. There’s also a heist sequence with intense music befitting a Mission: Impossible episode. And the donkey featured prominently on the film’s poster? Gone by about 15 minutes into the movie. Rarely have so many disparate parts added up to so little.

Paco: LAME

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Girls from Thunder Strip (1970)



It’s astonishing how often inept ’70s filmmakers botched simple ideas for drive-in flicks—after all, conjuring a passable exploitation flick shouldn’t involve more than matching a lurid concept with a trite plot, then filming lots of gratuitous sex and violence. Try explaining that to David L. Hewitt, the culprit behind The Girls from Thunder Strip. The picture ostensibly pits a trio of sexy moonshiners against a gang of greasy bikers, so the juxtaposition of rural and urban sensibilities should have resulted in something eventful and trashy. Emphasis on should have. Among myriad other problems, Hewitt fails to identify a proper leading character, so the picture jumps from one underdeveloped character to the next seemingly at random. Worse, Hewitt and his collaborators integrate a third set of characters, redneck dudes who sorta-kinda align with the moonshiners, so the basic conflict between two distinct factions gets muddied. The list of flaws goes on. Although Gary Graver’s cinematography is frequently imaginative, the acting is generally as bad as the storytelling, and The Girls from Thunder Strip lacks conviction as sexploitation. In what should be the movie’s tawdriest scene, a buxom moonshiner bathes herself in a pond while wearing lingerie. Is she cleaning herself or doing laundry? Another sure sign the film lacks direction? The most entertaining scenes are comic-relief bits in which famed DJ/actor Casey Kasem, who plays a dopey federal agent, bickers with B-movie actor/director Jack Starrett, who plays a grumpy sheriff.

The Girls from Thunder Strip: LAME

Monday, April 2, 2018

Joe Hill (1971)



          Respectable but hard to access emotionally, Joe Hill is a straightforward biopic about the iconic activist/songwriter who emigrated from Sweden to the U.S. in 1902 and was executed in 1915 on murder chargers that some consider highly questionable. Circa 1971, Hill’s name would have been familiar to the hippie crowd because folksinger Joan Baez performed the tribute song “Joe Hill” at Woodstock, and her rendering was included in the 1970 documentary about that event. (A studio version of Baez’s interpretation appears in this film.) By any measure, the real Joe Hill led a life worth examining. The wannabe composer endured poverty in New York City’s immigrant slums before becoming a hobo. After developing sensitivity to the oppression of the underclass, he began using his talent to rally workers through politically charged songs. Eventually, Hill become synonymous with the International Workers of the World, though his activism led to beatings and incarcerations. 
          The movie depicts Hill’s adventures in a linear fashion, with Swedish actor Thommy Berggren bringing an amiably steely quality to the title role. Some early scenes work quite well, as when Hill bonds with a larcenous street urchin. Yet Swedish writer-director Bo Widerberg never pulls the viewer fully into Hill’s mind, so many of the character’s actions seem arbitrary. As a result, the movie doesn’t flow as well as it should. Joe Hill feels like a collection of mildly interesting episodes instead of a propulsive narrative, which is a shame. Sequences of Hill clashing with violent authorities are pungent, and whenever Widerberg allows humor to enter the mix, Joe Hill sparks to life. In one scene, for instance, Hill dines at a posh restaurant, ordering seemingly everything on the menu, then concludes the meal by rolling up his sleeves and asking for directions to the kitchen, implying his intention to pay his bill by washing dishes.
          And it’s not as if Widerberg fails to get the serious stuff right, because the final stretch of the picture, dramatizing Hill’s time in prison, is affecting. Less impressive is the preceding sequence, during which Hill acts as his own attorney while on trial for murder, as happened in real life; in Widerberg’s telling, Hill improbably comes across as a master litigator who only loses because the deck is stacked against him. Portraying a noble historical figure as a superhero surrounded by conspirators is rarely the right way to demonstrate artistic credibility. And while it’s not entirely fair to malign Joe Hill as a one-dimensional hagiography, the movie invites such criticism by leaving way too many gaps in terms of character development.

Joe Hill: FUNKY

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Lord Shango (1975)



          Some practitioners of the horror genre argue that logic has no place in spooky stories. Fair enough. After all, one would never argue that the events of, say, The Shining (1980) could take place in reality. Still, there are limits. In the offbeat blaxploitation horror picture Lord Shango, murders happen in plain view of witnesses but authorities never seem to get involved. And that’s just one affront to common sense. Lord Shango is moderately interesting because of the way it forefronts a clash between two belief systems, but the movie is a frustrating mess. In the wild opening sequence, young man Femi (Bill Overton) rushes to rescue his girlfriend, Billie (Avis McCarther), from baptism by a group of overzealous Christians. They respond by drowning him in full view of an entire congregation. This enrages Billie’s mother, Jenny (Marlene Clark), who turns to a local voodoo cult for help exacting revenge. Enter Jabo (Lawrence Cook), a ne’er-do-well who may or may not have mystical powers. He compels Jenny to make sacrifices to “Lord Shango” in order to reincarnate Femi. And if you’re wondering how all this stuff meshes into a coherent storyline, don’t bother, because it doesn’t.
          Lord Shango unspools as a random assortment of moments, some of which are creepy and some of which are merely confounding. In the picture’s best scene, Jabo strolls onto the dancefloor of a nightclub and shimmies toward a pregnant Billie, who’s grooving to one of the movie’s hot Afro-fusion beats. Jabo moves closer and closer to Billie until her movements slow down to match his, and he stares into her eyes, triggering some sort of hypnosis/possession/trance state. Afterward, Jabo frets that he failed to achieve a supernatural task: “It’s always a struggle when a restless soul tries to enter a body not yet born.” Built solely on acting and mood and music, this scene has all the clarity and weirdness Lord Shango seeks elsewhere but usually fails to find. Incidentally, many of the same problems plague the 1973 blaxploitation vampire picture Ganja & Hess, which also stars Marlene Clark.

Lord Shango: FUNKY