Sunday, April 23, 2017

Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1975)

          A lovely story about aging, identity, and romance, offbeat telefilm Queen of the Stardust Ballroom features a multidimensional leading performance by Maureen Stapleton, as well as a touching supporting turn from Charles Durning. Both were nominated for Emmys. Tracking the experiences of a woman in late middle age who struggles to build a new life after the death of her husband, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom explores the tender theme of how difficult it is to reconcile the disappointments of life with the desire to live happily, especially when the passage of time creates limitations. The central conceit involves dance, because the widow discovers new joy by visiting a ballroom where old songs provide the soundtrack, so there’s a certain innate elegance to the piece—among other things, the movie revels in the irony that heavyset Durning was light on his feet. Had the filmmakers presented their story without extraneous adornment, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom would have been a near-perfect gem. Alas, the filmmakers elected to make Queen of the Stardust Ballroom into a musical, with characters talk-singing several original tunes by the songwriting team of Marilyn and Alan Bergman. The songs are fine in and of themselves, but they diminish the movie’s verisimilitude instead of adding, as was undoubtedly the intention, to the story’s magic.
          The narrative begins with Bea Asher (Stapleton) losing her husband and beginning a lonely new life in her empty house in the Bronx. Her adult daughter lives in the suburbs, and her adult son relocates to Los Angeles. Determined to stay in the house where she’s lived for decades, Bea opens a junk shop but remains desperately lonely until a friend recommends she visit the Stardust Ballroom. That’s where Bea meets portly mailman Al Green (Durning). They connect through dancing and eventually become a couple, but problems—including judgment from Bea’s relatives—soon challenge their happiness. Through it all, writer Jerome Kass emphasizes the combination of excitement and fear Bea experiences every time she steps outside her comfort zone. Yet Queen of the Stardust Ballroom isn’t some manipulative piece about being young at heart; rather, it’s a bittersweet meditation on finding fulfillment no matter what compromised form it takes.
          Director Sam O’Steen, an Oscar-nominated film editor who helmed a handful of projects for the big and small screens, applies an unobtrusive style to the film’s storytelling, keeping the focus during dramatic scenes on the expressive faces of his actors and letting wide shots during dance scenes display figures gliding across the ballroom floor while lights bounce off the facets of a glitter ball. More than anything, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom is an actors’ piece, with the deep humanity that Stapleton and Durning bring to their roles infusing every scene. As for the songs, some are more jarring than others, though, to the Bergmans’ credit, Stapleton’s first number, “How Could You Do This To Me?”, sets up her character well. The songs are not the film’s best element, but they’re not egregious.

Queen of the Stardust Ballroom: GROOVY

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976)

It’s hard to avoid being salacious when telling the Marilyn Monroe story. She was raped, she posed for nude photos on multiple occasions, she traded sexual favors for career opportunities, and so on. The challenge for those dramatizing her life is to integrate sensational elements tastefully—in other words, to avoid the path taken by bottom-feeding hack Larry Buchanan while making Goodbye, Norma Jean. Starring onetime Hee-Haw honey Misty Rowe, this picture is a compendium of titillating vignettes, as if young Norma Jean Baker spent every waking moment of her life fending off unsolicited advances, then took control of her destiny by becoming the equivalent of prostitute, exchanging sex for screen tests until she finally won a legitimate role. There’s a grain of truth in that version of events, but Buchanan’s storyline is so simplistic and tacky as to be profoundly offensive. A sure sign of how little Buchanan cares about historical accuracy is the fact that Rowe has bright blonde hair throughout the movie, even though Norma Jean spent many of her pre-fame years as a brunette. Yet perhaps the saddest thing about Goodbye, Norma Jean is that it’s relatively watchable. The curvaceous Rowe appears naked in many scenes, and the storyline moves along at a brisk pace as Norma Jean leaves home, builds alliances, and suffers through one casting-couch nightmare after another until making her dreams of stardom come true. Moreover, the public’s enduring fascination with Monroe’s tragic life grants Goodbye, Norma Jean the illusion of relevance. Yet this is unquestionably a sleazefest disguised as a biopic, so even though Goodbye, Norma Jean is competently filmed and has the occasional resonant moment, the picture demonstrates that the indignities Monroe suffered did not end with her death; movies like this one prolong an ugly cycle of objectification and violation.

Goodbye, Norma Jean: LAME

Friday, April 21, 2017

Psyched by the 4D Witch (A Tale of Demonology) (1973)

Cinematic explorers who get their kicks finding the worst movies ever made will dig the supernatural-themed sex flick Psyched by the 4D Witch. The movie comprises an 80-minute hallucination, because filmmaker Victor Luminera—who never made another movie—employs so many acid-trip superimpositions, in-camera visual FX, and swirling colors that the picture resembles the background images from a Pink Floyd concert, only with nudie shots thrown in every so often. Had Luminera provided a soundtrack as bizarre as the visuals, Psyched by the 4D Witch might have become a minor landmark in experimental filmmaking. Alas, the voiceover-driven audio tells a linear story that grounds the images in dimwitted salaciousness. Protagonist Cindy, a girl-next-door blonde wearing Mary Pickford curls, complains about sexual hangups until she discovers a magical connection to Abigail, a witch from the fourth dimension who manifests as a pair of free-floating eyes. Abigail explains that she’ll take Cindy into extrasensory realms of carnal satisfaction, with each trip to the fourth dimension triggered by the command, “Let’s fantasy-fuck now!” At first, Cindy is reluctant, hence a line of dialogue that’s disturbing on many levels: “And I’ll still remain a virgin for my daddy?” The fourth-dimension humping scenes feature grody shots of Cindy stripping, guys (and girls) grinding away, and lots of visual noise layered atop the basic imagery, the better to accompany freaky sound collages. Luminera also subjects viewers to several iterations of the film’s atrocious fuzz-rock theme song. Offering an interminable hybrid of smut and trippiness, Psyched by the 4D Witch is nothing but tarted-up sleaze or an amateur film exercise gone horribly wrong, if not both.

Psyched by the 4D Witch (A Tale of Demonology): SQUARE

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Five Days from Home (1978)

          Among the least suspenseful chase films ever made, Five Days from Home stars George Peppard (who also directed) as a congenial convict who breaks out of jail so he can visit his hospitalized son. How congenial? The convict apologizes to people he abducts, keeps a running tab for debts he incurs, and leaves notes at stores he robs promising to reimburse the owners for damages and stolen items. Once the story adds in the notion that the protagonist was once a cop, it’s hard to accept that he was ever convicted for a crime, and the way he constantly evades capture makes the lawmen who are chasing him seem incompetent. Among the filmmakers’ strange storytelling choices is the decision to limit the protagonist’s shared screen time with his son to only one very brief scene. Since viewers are clearly expected to root for the antihero’s compassionate mission, wouldn’t it have made sense to present, say, flashbacks deepening and enriching the father-son relationship? Oh, well. Five Days from Home is pleasant enough to watch thanks to the inherent momentum of the storyline and the presence of a few mildly credible supporting characters. There’s even a cute dog in a few scenes, though the film’s odd poster greatly overstates the pup’s primacy within the narrative.
          The startling opening images promise a very different movie than Five Days Home actually delivers, because during the credits, T.M. Pryor (Peppard) is shown running naked except for boots through rugged bayou country in Louisiana. After clothing himself, Pryor sneaks a ride on a passing cargo truck, escaping the vicinity of his former prison and making his way toward the nearest city. He acquires guns and kidnaps a dumpy young woman named Wanda (Sherry Boucher), who drives him across several state lines. They bond somewhat, though T.M. remains focused on reaching his boy, who was hurt in a car accident. Way too much screen time elapses before the story introduces T.M.’s main pursuer, Inspector Markley (Neville Brand), and his presence never generates much tension. The film’s most colorful passage begins with T.M. and Wanda commandeering a car driven by a sleazy businessman, who is on his way to a tryst with his secretary/mistress. Appalled by the businessman’s immorality, T.M. contrives to humiliate the man without inflicting bodily harm. The ending of the picture is never in doubt, and the portrayal of the antihero as a tight-lipped man of principle rings false. Nonetheless, Five Days from Home moves along at a fair clip, and the friction between the nastiness of Peppard’s screen persona and the wholesomeness of his character creates an interestingly weird vibe.

Five Days from Home: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

MIA: Rare '70s Movies

Greetings, people of Every ’70s Movie! Last month, I wrote a post asking for help finding obscure ’70s flicks for review purposes, and I’m happy to report that intrepid readers helped me track town Boardwalk (1979), The Double McGuffin (1979), Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971), Pigeons (1970), Rivals (1972), Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), and Sudden Death (1977). Thank you! (Here’s a very special shout-out to reader Eric R. in Chicago, for service above and beyond the call of duty.) Now it’s time for another list of ’70s movies that have proved elusive. If anyone has access to copies of these films, please share. Information about commercially released DVDs is helpful, since I’m thus far stumped on these titles, and streaming links on legit sites are even better. If by some chance you physically own tapes or videos and can loan or render copies, please e-mail me directly. (It’s my preference to avoid download sites, and I’m aware that some of these titles are available on such sites, so no need to hip me to, say, Thanks in advance, and keep on keepin’ on!

Coast to Coast (1980, US, with Robert Blake)
Country Music (1972, US, with Marty Robbins)
Cry for Me, Billy a/k/a Face to the Wind (1972, US, with Harry Dean Stanton)
The Devil Is a Woman (1973, Italy/UK, with Glenda Jackson)
The Farmer (1977, US, with Angel Tompkins)
Glass Houses (1972, US, with Jennifer O’Neill)
The Jerusalem File (1972, Israel/US, with Bruce Davison)
Joe Hill (1971, Sweden/US, d. Bo Widerberg)
Limbo (1972, US, with Kate Jackson)
The Little Ark (1972, US, with Theodore Bikel)
Mackintosh and T.J. (1975, US, with Roy Rogers)
The Nelson Affair a/k/a Bequest to the Nation (1973, UK, with Glenda Jackson)
Newman’s Law (1974, US, with George Peppard)
Nunzio (1978, US, with David Proval)
Sammy Stops the World (1978, US, with Sammy Davis Jr.)
Shhh (1975, US, with Rita Moreno)
Sidecar Racers (1975, Australia/US, with Peter Graves)
Skullduggery (1970, US, with Burt Reynolds)
Slow Dancing in the Big City (1978, US, with Paul Sorvino)
Story of a Woman (1970, Italy/US, with Robert Stack)
Trader Horn (1973. US, with Rod Taylor)
Two People (1973, US, with Peter Fonda)
The Way We Live Now (1970, US, d. Barry Brown)
Welcome to the Club (1971, US, with Jack Warden)
You and Me (1975, US, with David Carradine)

Lucky Luciano (1973)

          One of myriad mob flicks made after The Godfather (1971) restored the gangster genre to its place in the mainstream, Lucky Luciano is a discombobulated affair. Buried inside the movie’s confusing sprawl is a passable character study of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the individual credited with establishing the Mafia’s foothold in New York City. Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté renders an adequate portrayal, illustrating Luciano’s descent from a position of remarkable power to life as a marked man. At his best, Volonté sketches a cocksure criminal who deftly employed the media while all but daring authorities and enemies to come at him. Had the makers of this multinational coproduction limited their efforts to describing Luciano’s eventful career in organized crime, the picture would have been more effective. As is, the movie lacks flow thanks to a disjointed timeline, excessive focus on supporting characters, and the failure to clearly define Luciano as an individual before the plot kicks into gear. Throughout the first half-hour, Luciano is so incidental to his own story that it’s difficult to track what the movie’s about. Then, just when it seems as if the filmmakers have found their way, they detour into a pointless informant subplot that features a typically grandiose turn by Rod Steiger. Oh, well.
          After glossing over one of Luciano’s most important milestones, the mass murder of 40 bosses and the subsequent consolidation of power, the picture winds through perplexing scenes about profiteering in post-WWII Italy and vignettes of a Senate investigation. Actors including Charles Cioffi and Vincent Gardenia come and go in meaningless roles before the story proper gets underway. Thanks to a controversial deal with government officials, Luciano receives extradition to his native Italy instead of jail time for alleged crimes. While in Italy, Luciano tries operating his criminal enterprises from afar, but investigators and mobsters close in on him. Some want Luciano behind bars, while others want him dead. The quality of the filmmaking is never superlative. In one bit, a tired-looking Edmund O’Brien spews reams of dull exposition, and in another, a somewhat exciting chase scene gets smothered beneath overly explanatory voiceover. By the time the movie reaches its final stretch, depicting Luciano’s reaction to government pressure and threats from adversaries, it’s difficult to care about his plight or even to parse exactly why things are happening. So while Lucky Luciano has enough in the way of familiar faces and production values to qualify as passable mob-movie fare, it’s a dud from a narrative perspective.

Lucky Luciano: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Stand Up and Be Counted (1972)

          In what should be a standout moment during the feminism-themed comedy Stand Up and Be Counted, ladies meet for a rap session about their encounters with sexism. Participants include Dr. Joyce Brothers (as herself), future Jeffersons star Isabel Sanford, and a nun. Alas, comedic sparks never fly, because like the rest of this flat-footed studio picture written and directed by men, the scene devolves into oversimplifications and slogans. Progressive-minded producer Mike Frankovich and his collaborators, director Jackie Cooper and screenwriter Bernard Slade, seem as if they perceived the women’s-lib movement as a whimsical fad. To a one, the feminists in this movie are portrayed as shrill whiners whose only real accomplishment is alienating the men in their lives. The picture ends on a fairly hip note, so it’s not quite as dunderheaded an affair as the preceding remarks might suggest. Nonetheless, there’s a reason Stand Up and Be Counted is not remembered as a milestone in Equal Rights Amendment-era propaganda.
          Jacqueline Bisset stars as Sheila, a fashion reporter assigned to do a magazine story on the burgeoning women’s movement. To do so, she flies to her hometown of Denver. (The script pathetically explains Bisset’s English accent by saying she spent time in London.) During the flight, Sheila rekindles her romance with an ex, Elliot (Gary Lockwood). In Denver, Sheila discovers that her mother is part of a “Senior Women’s Liberation” organization, and that her ultra-feminist younger sister, Karen (Lee Purcell), wants to hire a man to impregnate her. Torn between new and old ideas about gender roles, Sheila moves in with Elliot, only to discover he’s a patronizing chauvinist. Other threads involve a housewife rebelling against her domineering husband, and a trophy wife demanding respect for the work she does at her husband’s bra factory.
          Stand Up and Be Counted is one of those bad movies that isn’t really a bad movie. In its clumsy way, the film means well, but problems compound problems. Sheila is a hopelessly passive character, thus draining the movie of momentum, and supporting players deliver livelier work than Bisset, causing her presence to seem ornamental. (She’s simultaneously breathtaking and uninteresting.) Lockwood’s performance is lifeless, Purcell is feisty but underused, and minor turns by comic pros including Hector Elizondo, Steve Lawrence, Loretta Swit, and Nancy Walker offer only fleeting relief from the overall mediocrity. FYI, although Helen Reddy’s anthem “I Am Woman” plays during the closing credits, it was not composed for the picture. After releasing the tune a year before, Reddy re-recorded “I Am Woman” for Stand Up and Be Counted, and the second version became a hit.

Stand Up and Be Counted: FUNKY

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Double McGuffin (1979)

          After scoring a major success with the independently produced canine caper Benji (1974), writer-director Joe Camp made two attempts at expanding his film career beyond Benji sequels and spinoffs. First came Hawmps! (1976), a silly lark about cavalrymen using camels instead of horses, and next came this youth-oriented Hitchcock homage. As any good student of the Master of Suspense knows, a “McGuffin” is a plot device that triggers action, such as the key in Notorious (1946) or the microfilm in North by Northwest (1959). Therefore the gimmick behind this movie, as Orson Welles explains during brief narration toward the beginning, is that the plot involves two separate McGuffins. Specifically, a mischievous boy discovers a suitcase filled with money near a sewer pipe, then brings his friends back to the area, where they discover the suitcase has been replaced with a dead body. Thereafter, the lads embark on a mystery-solving adventure that becomes a race against time once clues reveal a plan to murder someone at their school’s homecoming game. Echoing the classic Hitch tradition, the scenario grows more convoluted with each new development, so the kids discover international intrigue as well as hitmen and payoffs. Dogging the youthful investigators is a kindhearted local cop.
          On the plus side, The Double McGuffin is slickly produced, with peppy work by the young leading actors and proficient supporting turns by Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Elke Sommer. On the minus side, Camp’s writing is not as strong as his filmmaking. Too often, he slips into mawkishness and triviality, and several long scenes of interplay among the schoolchildren are boring. Worse, the film’s pacing is so unhurried and the narrative events are so inconsequential that the film nearly evaporates at regular intervals. One gets the sense of Camp being way too nice behind the camera, since much focus is given to the performance of newcomer Dion Pride, son of country singer Charley Pride. Papa Pride, of course, crooned the theme song for Benji, and Pride the Younger does the honors here. Doing a solid for a pal is lovely, but it doesn’t make for engrossing cinema. And let’s be honest: There’s only so high a juvenile Hitchcock riff can rise when the leading lady is Lisa Whelchel, later to achieve fame as “Blair” on The Facts of Life. One of the great screen sirens she is not.

The Double McGuffin: FUNKY

Sunday, April 16, 2017

1980 Week: Simon

          Following impressive runs as Johnny Carson’s head writer from 1969 to 1970 and as Woody Allen’s writing partner for Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1979), Marshall Brickman launched a brief and only moderately successful directorial career with the sci-fi satire Simon. Starring Alan Arkin in a role well-suited to the actor’s unique gifts, the movie bears obvious traces of Allen’s cinematic style, although Brickman is unable to match his former collaborator on the levels of hilarity, insight, and substance. Simon is mostly sorta-funny and sorta-smart, so the film is only sorta-memorable. Seen today, the movie loses even more potency because so many of the jokes are directed at the extremes of hippy-dippy ’70s scientists—for instance, the picture’s main villain evokes turtleneck-loving ’70s science star Carl Sagan, who deserves better than to be used as the visual reference for a nefarious character.
          Borrowing a gimmick that Allen used many times, the movie opens like a documentary, introducing viewers to the great minds at the Institute for Advanced Concepts, a think tank funded with seemingly unlimited government money. Under the supervision of Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton), the eggheads at the institute contrive experiments for amusement rather than for higher purposes, for instance skewing Nielson ratings to help the variety show Donnie & Marie become a hit. One day, the scientists decide it would be fun to convince the American public than an alien lives among them. After running data, they identify college professor Simon Mendelssohn (Arkin) as the individual most susceptible to the suggestion that he’s from another planet. Mendelssohn is a low-rent theorist whose desire to make an important social contribution far exceeds his talents, so he’s flattered when he’s invited to join the think tank—and he’s thrilled when Becker and his cronies reveal their “discovery” of Mendelssohn’s true origins. Later, once the eggheads present Mendelssohn to the world, Simon goes rogue, using pirate-broadcasting technology to share his supposedly extraterrestrial wisdom with the people of the world.
          Brickman, who cowrote the film’s original story with Thomas Baum, can’t figure out where to take the outlandish concept, and he can’t sustain a consistent tone. Although the movie never slides into full-on stupidity, various broad jokes diminish the clever gags by association. It’s also distracting that cinematographer Adam Holender so obviously mimics the shadow-drenched shooting style of master DP Gordon Willis, who shot Annie Hall and Manhattan. Arkin scores a few wonderfully silly moments, Pendleton’s performance is quite sly, and leading lady Judy Graubart, as Mendelssohn’s rightfully skeptical girlfriend, is charming in a neurotic sort of way. (The great Madeline Kahn is wasted in a too-small supporting role.) Yet the real problem with the picture is that it’s hard to care what happens to the main character, who toggles between obnoxious and pathetic.

Simon: FUNKY

Saturday, April 15, 2017

1980 Week: The Baltimore Bullet

          Drab, sexist, and unfocused, this would-be comedy about pool hustlers features James Coburn in his familiar charming-rogue groove, complete with the glorious salt-and-pepper perm that he sported for many years. (In fact, two separate scenes showcase Coburn's hair-care regimen, because he works a flat iron in one vignette and tucks his precious coiffure beneath a shower cap in another.) The storyline is a colorless mixture of gambling-flick clichés, and the characterizations are as one-dimensional as the narrative. Nonetheless, Coburn does what he can to infuse the movie with energy, and the plot skips along from one situation to the next at a fairly rapid pace. So while it would be a stretch to call The Baltimore Bullet interesting, the picture is basically watchable, and pool fans will enjoy cameos by real-life professional players as well as scenes featuring wild trick shots, some of which Coburn performs on-camera. There’s also a bizarre supporting performance by onetime blaxploitation luminary Calvin Lockhart, who sports a giant white Afro and a ladies’ dressing robe to play a crook named “Snow White.”
          When the story begins, veteran hustler Nick Casey (Coburn), whose nickname is “The Baltimore Bullet,” ekes out a living alongside his young partner, Billie Joe Robbins (Bruce Boxleitner), a headstrong stud with a bad habit of losing all his money in poker games. The men are thoroughly sleazy, using an old clipping of their sole appearance in Sports Illustrated to score with bimbos. (Typically misogynistic moment: Billie Joe loses a bet by groping a waitress’ massive breasts and confirming they’re real instead of silicone.) Eventually, word reaches Nick that an old nemesis, The Deacon (Omar Sharif), has been released from prison, so Nick and Billie Joe head to New Orleans, where they plan to enter a pool contest in order to win enough money for a high-stakes rematch with The Deacon. Along the way to New Orleans, the hustlers befriend singer-songwriter Carolina Red (Ronnee Blakeley, a long way from Robert Altman’s Nashville) and get into a hassle with the aforementioned Snow White, occasioning a chase scene through an amusement-park funhouse.
          Lighthearted but witless, the script by John Brascia and Robert Vincent O'Neill strives for madcap excitement but instead delivers disassociated moments that lack both sparkle and substance. It's impossible to care what happens to the self-serving characters, and the movie ventures off track so many times that one can't even ride the momentum of the central plot all the way to the finish. Worse, incoherence rears its head with considerable frequency, adding muddiness to the lengthy list of the movie's shortcomings.

The Baltimore Bullet: FUNKY

Friday, April 14, 2017

1980 Week: The Octagon

          Unlike his friend Bruce Lee, American martial artist-turned-movie star Chuck Norris rarely used his films to explore the spiritual aspects of Asian fighting techniques. Quite to the contrary, Norris made meat-and-potatoes action pictures during his heyday, eventually complementing his signature roundhouse kicks with giant pistols and massive machine guns. Examining Norris’ most ambitious martial-arts flick, The Octagon, reveals why the strategies that worked for Lee didn’t work for Norris. Among other reasons, Norris is, was, and always will be a genuinely terrible actor, though he was able to slide through on charm and stoicism in a few projects.
          Throughout The Octagon, director Eric Karson features scenes of Norris’ character deep in thought while echo-laden recordings of Norris’ voice reverberate on the soundtrack, conveying the character’s thoughts. Thanks to the actor’s blank facial expressions and lame surfer-dude line readings, the effect is alternately dull and laughable. At his best, Lee was able to convey depth, intensity, and soulfulness. All three qualities are required to put across the concept of a philosophical warrior, and all three qualities are beyond Norris’ dramatic reach. In the star’s defense, the script for The Octagon is so episodic and turgid that even the best actor would have encountered difficulty creating a dynamic through line. So while the film is redeemed somewhat by a few cool action scenes, including the moderately stylish climax, The Octagon is a slog of a movie that only devoted fans of martial-arts cinema are likely to enjoy.
          The mechanics of the story are silly and twisty, but the main thrust is that modern-day ninja assassins have begun operating in the U.S. Professional martial artist Scott James (Norris) suspects the ninja were trained by his estranged half-brother, Sekura (Tadashi Yamashita). Convoluted intrigue ensues. Scott becomes involved with a beautiful woman, Justine (Karen Carlson), who has connections to the assassinations. Also pulled into the situation are Scott’s best friend (Art Hindle) and a mercenary (Lee Van Cleef) with whom Scott shares history. Eventually, Scott learns that Sekura has built a training camp for international killers, so he and his allies mount an assault, leading to a showdown between the half-brothers. Although the dialogue and the storytelling are as poor as Norris’ acting, cinematographer Michel Hugo gives The Octagon a polished look, and every so often, something onscreen has an adrenalized kick—the shots of the ninja scaling a hotel wall at night are creepy, and the staging of the final showdown is suitably grandiose.

The Octagon: FUNKY

Thursday, April 13, 2017

1980 Week: The Competition

          An old saying holds that directing is 90 percent casting. The trick, however, is casting the right actor in the right role at the right time. Consider The Competition, a glossy romantic drama about two pianists who fall in love while participating in a contest that will grant the winner instant access to a career performing classical music at top venues. Richard Dreyfuss plays the leading role of Paul Dietrich, a young man who has outgrown his child-prodigy years and yet not fully realized his promise as an adult. With his arsenal of off-putting sneers and uptight tics, Dreyfuss is completely the right performer for this role. Unfortunately, because he was in his early 30s when he made the picture, it’s an impossible accept him as a character who is presumably in his early 20s, especially since Dreyfuss had already played several roles with gray hair and a paunch. Director Joel Oliansnky and his collaborators try every trick they can to put across the desired illusion—Dreyfuss wears distracting makeup beneath his eyes, and other characters comment upon his “premature” receding hairline—but these feeble efforts only make the issue more noticeable. And so it goes, alas, for the rest of the picture, which boats intelligence and wit but feels artificial and contrived in nearly every possible way.
          The story, which Oliansky cowrote with producer William Sackheim, is simple. Paul decides to enter one last competition before giving up his dreams of musical glory for a day job. Upon arriving in San Francisco for auditions, he encounters pretty Heidi Joan Schoonover (Amy Irving), and they strike romantic sparks. Despite his determination to remain focused, Paul falls for Heidi. She, in turn, finds his earthiness refreshing since she comes from an insular, privileged background. Oliansky interweaves the love story of these two characters with subplots about other competitors, plus another subplot about Greta Vandemann (Lee Remick), Heidi’s piano teacher, herself a former competitor.
          Inexplicably, Oliansky lets The Competition sprawl across a bloated running time of more than two hours, even though the material is paper-thin. Much of the excess happens during performance scenes, since Oliansky seems determined to show off the way his actors learned to mimic complex fingering. There’s also a general languidness to the pacing, especially when actors stand in perfect three-point lighting to deliver monologues that, one presumes, were envisioned as Oscar clips. For a movie with a decent sense of humor, The Competition takes itself awfully seriously. Still, the film is not without its emotional peaks, even if Oliansky’s tendency toward overwritten schmaltz undercuts every sincere thing that his actors try to accomplish. Oh, and fair warning: If you’re among those who find Dreyfuss impossibly precious and smug, watching The Competition will not change your opinion.

The Competition: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

1980 Week: HealtH

          A tiresome ensemble piece blending conspiracies, politics, romance, and satire through the mechanism of interconnected storylines and a kaleidescopic soundtrack, Robert Altman’s HealtH comes across as Nashville Lite. At best, HealtH is a goofy comedy using the intrigue at a health-food convention as a means of spoofing the corruption of modern American politics. At worst, HealtH is a pretentious trifle from an overrated director repeating old tricks. It’s interesting that HealtH was released in 1980, because the film’s artistic and commercial failure neatly bookends the chapter in Altman’s career that began with the success of M*A*S*H exactly one decade earlier. Over the course of the ’70s, Altman made a number of fine films and just as many bad ones, cementing his reputation as an iconoclast who put together wonderful casts by offering the promise of loose work environments and unconventional material. Yet by the time Altman derailed with the twin 1980 misfires of HealtH and Popeye, his first run as a commercial director was over. It wouldn’t be until 1992’s The Player that Altman was able to assemble a cast as impressive as the one he gathered for HealtH.
          Set at a hotel in Florida, HealtH observes a convention at which the officers of a massive health-food organization gather to elect their new president. The leading candidates are Esther Brill  (Lauren Bacall), a pontificating 83-year-old virgin with narcolepsy; Isabelle Garnell (Glenda Jackson), an insufferable progressive who recites old Adlai Stevenson speeches whether or not anyone’s listening; Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett), a neurotic political operative with White House connections; and Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley), a vitamin salesman using his “campaign” as a publicity stunt to hype his products. Also involved in the election are Gloria’s ex-husband, Harry Wolff (James Garner); dirty-tricks specialist Bobby Hammer (Henry Gibson); crazed cowboy Colonel Cody (Donald Moffatt); and real-life talk-show host Dick Cavett, who plays himself.
          The mosaic structure of the picture showcases bizarre behavior in a casual style. One gets the sense of Altman and his collaborators indulging their shared sense of humor, so the resulting film feels like a compendium of in-jokes. The actors are all so skilled that some of the gags almost connect, but the overall vibe is quite tiresome. Altman adds virtually nothing to the statements about democratic elections that he made in Nashville, and he seems disinterested in health-food culture beyond making a few judgmental digs. Not surprisingly, HealtH never found a major audience. Altman made the film as part of a multipicture deal with Fox, delivering his third dud in a row after A Perfect Couple and Quintet (both 1979), so Fox initially balked at releasing HealtH. Altman snuck the film into a few theaters during 1980, and the studio released the picture properly in 1982, when it tanked.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

1980 Week: Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)

The last theatrical feature made during the original heyday of animated projects based upon Charles M. Shulz’s beloved Peanuts franchise, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!) finds the franchise’s key creative team at low ebb. Schulz, who wrote and produced the picture, fails to deliver either a memorable narrative or strong jokes, and codirector Bill Melendez (a Peanuts veteran who shared helming chores on this project with Phil Roman) fails to provide the imaginative visual flourishes that make the deliberately crude artistic style of early Peanuts cartoons so charming. In perhaps the most telling sign of creative fatigue, the storytellers feature adult characters onscreen, complete with dialogue, breaking the Peanuts spell of a universe created by and for children. Even Snoopy makes a poor showing here. While the forever-unlucky title character endures an eventful trip through Europe, his brilliant dog, Snoopy, acts like a menace, causing traffic accidents and dodging guard duty so he can slip off to a roadside bar for stiff drinks. (Snoopy favors root beer, but the effect is the same.) Whereas previous Peanuts movies have solid stories with bittersweet emotional payoffs, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown feels trivial. Charlie Brown, Linus, Marcy, and Peppermint Patty venture to Europe as exchange students, taking Snoopy and his avian sidekick, Woodstock, along for the ride. In France, Charlie Brown visits a remote estate because he received a cryptic invitation, only to uncover a mystery with connections to his family. Neither the investigation nor the revelation it triggers is especially interesting. The movie also suffers for the inclusion of a lot more slapstick violence than usual; while the gags are gentle by normal standards, they seem harsh within the Peanuts sphere. After this disappointing film was released, Charlie Brown and the gang returned to their comfort zone of periodic TV specials until the release of a new, CGI-rendered feature, The Peanuts Movie, in 2015.

Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!): LAME

Monday, April 10, 2017

1980 Week: Private Benjamin

          After years of sharing top billing with male costars, Goldie Hawn finally scored a major box-office hit of her own thanks to Private Benjamin, the military-themed comedy that she also helped produce. Hiding a multilayered feminist message beneath a silly farce about a Jewish American Princess becoming a soldier, the picture has just enough substance to make up for the paucity of laugh-out-loud jokes. And while supporting players including Armand Assante and Eileen Brennan excel in juicy roles, Hawn‘s goofy appeal anchors the picture. Private Benjamin is all about the ridiculous spectacle of a tiny blonde with doe eyes running around obstacle courses in fatigues, complaining about damage to her fingernails and the unsatisfactory accommodations in her barracks. If there’s a major flaw in Private Benjamin, it’s that the movie lacks a big mission that tests the title character’s mettle—essentially, the sort of third act that was contrived for the following year’s military-themed comedy, Stripes (1981). However, Private Benjamin is only nominally about the Armed Forces, because soldiering is just a phase the title character passes through on the way to self-actualization.
          The movie begins with a lively wedding sequence, during which spoiled Judy Benjamin (Hawn) suffers a surprising loss: Her brand-new husband, Yale (Albert Brooks), dies of a heart attack during wedding-night sex. Devastated and lost, Judy meets a friendly stranger named Jim (Harry Dean Stanton), who offers a new life filled with adventure and luxury. By the time Judy realizes Jim is a military recruiter, she’s fallen for his vision of Army service as an extended vacation. Basic training sets her straight, especially when Judy clashes with stern Captain Lewis (Eileen Brennan), but Judy soon realizes she needs to see this thing through because she’s never accomplished anything. Her journey is complicated when she meets dashing Frenchman Henri (Assante), so a dramatic question takes shape: Will Judy discard her newfound sense of pride by settling back into the narcotizing cycle of domesticity and wealth?
          The script for Private Benjamin is shallow, and the writers tend to portray men as one-dimensional ogres. (Cowriter Nancy Meyers, later to become a rom-com titan, received her first credit—and her first Oscar nomination—for Private Benjamin.) Yet Private Benjamin works. The movie presents a steady stream of lighteheated moments, some of which contain a measure of sociopolitical resonance. Oscar-nominated Brennan makes a strong impression as a woman succeeding in a man’s world through pure toughness, while Assante explodes with energy and machismo, playing a special kind of dreamy jerk. Hawn floats through it all, coming across as bubbly even when her character is despondent, and setting the mood with her seemingly effortless comic skill and a touch of solid dramatic acting. She was rewarded with such impressive box-office success that a Private Benjamin TV show soon followed. Running from 1981 to 1983, the show replaced Hawn with Lorna Patterson, although Brennan reprised her supporting role.

Private Benjamin: GROOVY

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Morning After (1974)

          An unflinching made-for-TV story about alcoholism energized by the casting of  likeable Dick Van Dyke in the leading role, The Morning After tracks a man’s descent from managing a drinking problem to something much worse. Adapted from Jack B. Weiner’s novel by the great Richard Matheson, in one of his rare ventures outside the realm of genre fiction, the film moves at a remarkable pace, zooming from one incisive episode to the next. Van Dyke, who was open about his real-life alcoholism, attacks his role with tremendous commitment, so while he can’t quite reach the depths that, say, Jack Lemmon or Ray Milland did in their celebrated performances as men addicted to alcohol, Van Dyke erases any trace of his usual light-comedy style. Aiding Van Dyke considerably is costar Lynn Carlin, who plays the protagonist’s wife. Rather than simply delivering a rote version of the familiar “long-suffering spouse” role, she plays each scene specifically and vividly, illustrating the torment of a woman trying to reconcile the need for self-preservation with the desire to help a loved one. Other supporting players, including Don Porter (as the protagonist’s boss), render fine work as well, but the filmmakers—under the sure hand of journeyman director Richard T. Heffron—wisely keep the focus on Van Dyke’s character.
          Charlie Lester (Van Dyke) works as a speechwriter for an oil company in Los Angeles. Outwardly, he lives the American Dream, with a lovely wife, Fran (Carlin), and two children. Yet what coworkers and friends are mostly too polite to mention is that Charlie drinks to excess whenever he’s near alcohol. After one too many nights when Charlie doesn’t make it home after blacking out, Fran starts to snap, kicking the film’s drama into motion. She pushes her husband to stop drinking, which only compels him to drink more, and that, in turn, causes him to show up hung over at work, infuriating his straight-arrow boss. Charlie’s episodes become more and more unruly, and on several occasions he gets physical with Fran. Every time he sobers up, Charlie gets apologetic and weepy, and he eventually agrees to try therapy. Yet even the revelation that Charlie’s self-loathing stems from withholding parents who favored his golden-boy younger brother fails to suppress Charlie’s unquenchable thirst.
          The Morning After is exceedingly simple in its construction, and that’s why it’s so effective despite running just 75 minutes. Over the course of that short running time, we watch Charlie shift from a façade of normalcy to a pathetic vision of unchecked illness. The movie offers explanations and it also offers solutions, but the filmmakers let everything hinge on Charlie’s willingness to get better. Most stories about alcoholism end up feeling like PSAs for treatment options, but The Morning After doesn’t follow that path. Instead, this fine telefilm heads unrelentingly into the heart of darkness. And if you’re wondering why The Morning After isn’t in wide circulation, music is probably the reason; cover versions of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” are woven into the storytelling, and one imagines that licensing the song’s continued use is prohibitively expensive.

The Morning After: GROOVY