Thursday, June 11, 2009

6/7/09: That Certain Summer (1972)

Nominated for a slew of Emmy Awards (and winner for Supporting Actor Scott Jacoby), That Certain Summer turns out to be a surprisingly boring affair. The theme of homosexuality was still relatively new to movies in general back in 1972, and practically unheard of on TV. But 37 years later, it's understandable that the impact has been somewhat muted. So forgettable is the storyline that halfway through viewing the film, I realized that I had actually seen it—or at least some of it—as recently as last year.

Hal Holbrook, a big favorite of mine, plays a divorced father of a 15-year-old boy (Jacoby) who comes to learn that Dad's good friend Gary (Martin Sheen) is actually his live-in lover. (Memo to closeted dads: if you have an electric razor, hide the bottle of shaving cream.) It's a bitter pill to swallow, regardless of the year or the political climate. But That Certain Summer unfolds at a snail's pace, and the truly great cast (including Hope Lange and Joe Don Maker) don't manage to make much of an impression, at least on me. After looking forward to seeing it for half a lifetime, That Certain Summer proves to be a major letdown from one of my all-time favorite writing teams, Richard Levinson and William Link—who subsequently reteamed with Holbrook for the infinitely superior TV movie Murder by Natural Causes seven years later. Rating: 2/5.

6/6/09: A Taste of Evil (1971)

A Taste of Evil starts with Susan Wilcox, a girl of about 11, being attacked and then raped at her home by an unknown assailant. Flash-forward to several years later, and we learn that the incident left Susan traumatized to the point of catatonia for quite some time. The mental wounds now having been healed, Susan returns home to confront her demons—only to find that the original menace may still be lurking in the shadows. Or is it all in her imagination? As we learn what's really going on in A Taste of Evil, there are some unexpected twists in the tale; farfetched though some of it is, the movie did keep me spellbound throughout—this is precisely the sort of thriller I would have absolutely loved as a kid, and it still keeps me entertained today. The movie is a close cousin to another TV shocker from my youth: A Strange and Deadly Occurrence, made in 1974 by the same director, John Llewellyn Moxey. Evil coaxes good performances from Barbara Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowall, William Windom and Arthur O'Connell. Nicely written by horror-movie veteran screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. Rating: 4/5.

6/5/09: Hitchhike! (1974)

One frequent setting for 1970s TV suspense flicks was the open highway (e.g., Duel). In fact, actress Cloris Leachman, star of today's crapfest du jour, starred in one (Dying Room Only) only a year earlier. In today's entry, she picks up a hitchhiker, the aloof Michael Brandon, who has just murdered his lover in cold blood. Now, I have a very difficult time sympathizing for anybody who picks up a perfect stranger by the side of the road, so it's a challenge to muster any real sympathy for Cloris in this particular movie. Worse, there are way too many dull stretches on their way from L.A. to San Francisco. The action occasionally perks up when Brandon gets a little psychopathic from time to time, but Hitchhike! ultimately suffers from an anemic script and so-so performances (although Cloris is good, as usual). This is one movie that will really make you appreciate having a cell phone. Rating: 2/5.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

6/4/09: Revenge for a Rape (1976)

Death Wish meets Deliverance in today's howlingly awful, hopelessly schlocky revenge flick. Mike Connors (TV's Mannix) goes on a camping trip with his wife when she is raped by three guys while he's fishing. Unwilling to let the police do their job, he goes hunting for the culprits himself...with disastrous results.

Now, I love revenge stories, which is why I grabbed this DVD from the pile so early on in TV-Movie Month. However, 20 years before this was filmed, the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired an extremely similar story called "Revenge," wherein Ralph Meeker goes after the man he believes raped his wife (Vera Miles), with the twist being that she pointed out an innocent bystander. That's the same basic plot twist (targeting an innocent guy for wife rape) behind Revenge for a Rape; I wouldn't have minded the similarity in the story, except that the acting, direction, soundtrack and script are all irredeemably third-rate. Some unintentional laughs, though. Rating: 1/5.

Monday, June 08, 2009

6/3/09: The Forgotten Man (1971)

Writer Bernard Fein was one of of the creators and writers of Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971), about a group of POWs in World War II. His final TV project was the TV movie The Forgotten Man, about a Vietnam POW played by Dennis Weaver, but the tone is decidedly more dramatic.

Escaping from a POW camp five years after he was presumed killed in the war, he returns to the States—only to find that his wife has remarried, his business sold and the life he once knew a distant memory. Worse yet, he is exhibiting symptoms of what is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). He keeps flashing back to his savage captors and his interrogations, and as Weaver's mind begins to unravel, it leads to some unnerving and scary behavior.

The Forgotten Man is extremely typical of the low-budget television movies from the 1970s; familiar TV actors, familiar orchestral score, obvious spots for commercial breaks, etc. For me, that's not a criticism—it adds to the nostalgic flavor. The film kept me absorbed, and surprisingly I couldn't have predicted the direction the story would take. Weaver and co-star Lois Nettleton are very good; even better is young Pamelyn Ferdin (who appeared in countless movies and TV shows during the '60s and '70s), playing Weaver's beloved daughter. Rating: 3/5.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

6/2/09: Baffled! (1973)

Several of the filmmakers of yesterday's offering worked on various incarnations of Star Trek; today's choice stars Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy. Indeed, Nimoy's participation was my sole reason for being interested in Baffled! Regrettably, the movie is fairly weak, cheaply made, horrendously scored and full of bad acting, especially by Nimoy.

He stars as Tom Kovack, a race-car driver who starts having strange psychic visions that take him to a hotel in England, where some curious things are going on. He is aided by psychic-phenomena enthusiast Susan Hampshire, whose attractiveness is one of the very few things that kept me from falling asleep. Together they try to put the pieces of the mystery together, and of course by the end of the movie they have done just that. The formula reminded me of two much later TV series; it's sort of a cross between Medium (a person's visions are connected to a crime) and The X-Files (male and female team up to solve an otherworldly mystery). Both of those series were infinitely better than this dull movie of the week. The opening credits sequence and the very last scene make it painfully obvious that this was a pilot for a show. Why it never happened will definitely not leave you Baffled! Rating: 2/5.

6/1/09: Family Flight (1972)

As of this writing, I am planning to devote the entirety of June to movies made for TV during the 1970s. Growing up in that decade, I loved so many of the "Movies of the Week" that aired in that decade, from critically acclaimed broadcasts (Sybil, Duel) to low-budget thrillers (Trilogy of Terror) and well-written but now-forgotten dramas (A Cry for Help). Over the years, I have built up quite a collection of these Seventies flicks that I missed—enough for two months' worth of viewings at least. They include family dramas (the critically lauded That Certain Summer), horror schlock (Satan's School for Girls), mysteries (Snatched), and assorted romances, dramas, comedies, shockers and sci-fi claptrap. Since none of them were shown in theaters, I obviously won't be able to display a poster to accompany each blog entry; I'll show a VHS or DVD cover if the movie was officially released.

We kick off, for no reason whatsoever, with Family Fight, a 1972 suspenser directed by Marvin Chomsky (who lensed a few of the original Star Trek episodes) and produced by Harve Bennett, who, coincidentally enough, would go on to produce several of the Star Trek feature films. Rod Taylor stars as the head of a dysfunctional family (including an alcoholic wife and a withdrawn son) who pilots a small aircraft over Baja California when the plane is forced down in the desert. The party of four must work together to get out of a very tense and dangerous situation. The film is extremely representative of its type from this era; it reminded me a bit of Ordeal, another survival-themed TV movie (from 1973) that stranded Arthur Hill in the desert. Like most movies from this genre, what it lacks in production values, it makes up for in decent acting and an interesting story. This was one of the first movie roles for Ed Begley Jr., who has a couple of lines as a hitchhiker at the beginning of the film. Rating: 4/5.

5/31/09: A Simple Twist of Fate (1994)

Although it wasn't intentional, the fact that I sequenced two Steve Martin movies back to back turns out to have been a stroke of genius—especially these two particular titles. While both are worth watching, they couldn't be more different. The Lonely Guy is a broad comedy trading on Steve's comic persona, although he didn't write the screenplay; whereas A Simple Twist of Fate is a straight drama, with a script penned by Martin. Separated by exactly one decade, Twist of Fate shows Steve's growth as an actor and spotlights his ambition as a scenarist.

Loosely based on George Eliot's 1861 novel Silas Marner, the movie features Steve as a divorced loner whose life suddenly changes when a toddler literally walks into his life (and his house) one chilly winter's night. The little girl's mother, a heroin addict, has died outside in the snow, and a couple of rather farfetched scenes later, Steve Martin has adopted Mathilda as his own.

The movie's third act becomes a courtroom drama, with the now 12-year-old girl's biological father attempting to gain custody of the child. The heaviness of the drama is lifted by occasional and much-needed flashes of humor, some of it provided by SCTV veteran Catherine O'Hara, whom I've never thought of as particularly attractive, but who is drop-dead gorgeous in this film. (Pity she didn't get the opportunity to play Steve's love interest.) Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, as the biological father, partially succeeds with his Southern accent, and Cliff Eidelman's musical score is perfectly lush and melodic. The acting is all first-rate, and the various children playing Mathilda are amazing, especially Alana Austin as the 12-year-old version. I had only two slight gripes about the film. First, after letting his toddler escape briefly from their house, Steve later allows her to vanish again, and she teeters precariously from a steep cliff. (Bad parenting, Steve, and bad scripting—I lost faith in you as a Dad after that scene.) Second, I wanted to be more touched by the events in the movie, especially the ending. My eyes were entirely too dry by the dénouement; while there was plenty of warmth and emotion, I never got truly verklempt. (Thank God English borrows from so many other languages!) Despite those misgivings, I did enjoy the movie. Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

5/30/09: The Lonely Guy (1984)

Since I first saw him perform his stand-up comedy, I have considered Steve Martin a genius. His early TV comedy specials were inspired, and his early film career produced some of my favorite comedies, some of which he scripted himself (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Roxanne) and some written by others (All of Me, Little Shop of Horrors). And although Martin has continued to be funny on TV, and in plays and books he's written, his later films failed to deliver on his early promise, and today he churns out so many warmed-over retreads and remakes of old movies and TV shows that space prohibits me from even listing here. The fact is, I haven't loved a Steve Martin movie since 1989's Parenthood. So I had reason to look forward to The Lonely Guy, filmed well before I totally lost interest in Martin's film career. I think the only reason I missed it in the first place was that I read a bunch of mediocre reviews of it.

The movie turns out to be more more subued than one might expect, given Martin's early "wacky" persona. Many of the jokes fizzle hopelessly, the direction (by the unpredictable Arthur Hiller) is mediocre, and a few times, my intelligence was offended by the script. Martin plays a newly single guy who can't adapt to being alone; at one point he meets another single guy (Charles Grodin) and they have this exchange:

Grodin: I'm Warren Evans.
Martin (shaking his hand): Larry Hubbard.
Grodin: First-time lonely guy?
Martin: What's a lonely guy?

Ummm, are you fucking kidding me? A male adult needs to have that expression defined for him? Dialogue like this doesn't belong in a movie for thinking people. Which brings me to my next point, which is that about half of the movie really is genuinely funny, likeable and satirical. My favorite lines, between Martin and Grodin, are obviously improvised—I wish there had been more of that. I suspect the problem here is one of too many cooks spoiling the broth: the screenplay was the result of several writers, including original book author Bruce Jay Friedman, playwright Neil Simon and Mary Tyler Moore Show collaborators Stan Daniels and Ed Weinberger, as well as any improvised stuff contributed by Martin. Sometimes The Lonely Guy seems genuinely fresh and funny; other times, not so much. The humor is all over the map:

• Black-comedy moments involving the suicides of numerous lonely men;

• Silly moments (like when Steve gets into bed with his girlfriend, oblivious to the fact that she's sleeping with another guy);

• Inspired moments (Steve winds up in bed with some hot models and Dr. Joyce Brothers);

• Surreal moments (Steve goes into a restaurant alone, and literally has a spotlight shone upon him to make him the embarrassed center of attention).

There's also a terrific sight gag involving the pages of a day-by-day wall calendar that made me laugh out loud. As I say, some of it works, some of it doesn't.

There's not much of a plot to the film, and that works to its advantage. When it starts to be about something, it's inevitably the romance between Steve and Judith Ivey, which never quite gels. Every time they hook up, she dumps him on the grounds that he's too nice, or too perfect, or too sexy, or something nonsensical like that. (It's easily the worst part of the movie.) I craved more of the Woody Allenish bits, like the one where Steve consults with a psychiatrist who only interacts through his street-level intercom, and more Steve Martinish bits, like the one where Steve tries to lure potential dates by getting too big of a dog, who drags him along the sidewalk on his belly. A couple of times during the movie, Steve narrates in voice-over or addresses the audience by talking directly into the camera, but this device is never fully realized. The Lonely Guy probably would have been better if it believed more in itself and much less restrained. There are enough funny bits to make it worth seeing, but it could have been a real classic. Rating: 3/5.

5/29/09: Little Fugitive (1953)

Made in 1953 but having the look and feel of a considerably older movie, Little Fugitive tells the story of Joey Norton, a little boy who's tricked into thinking he has accidentally killed his older brother. Sickened and afraid by what he's done, Joey runs off to Coney Island...where he rides horses, plays games, collects the deposits on untold soda bottles, and generally has a great time until the happy and predictable conclusion.

While not a terrible movie, Little Fugitive is terribly made and surprisingly amateurish, perhaps the work of a first-time director, or maybe student filmmakers—students not much older than the protagonists, in fact. (The few quarters that Joey earns by digging up soda bottles might have been the entire budget for this movie.)

Although plagued with ponderously slow stretches and several subpar performances, the movie does succeed in making the viewer care about Joey, and we stick to the end to make sure he finds out he's not really guilty of first-degree manslaughter. Probably the most interesting thing about the film's 90 minutes is watching the parade of hilarious anachronisms, such as the sequence where riders are seen pulling the brass ring as they ride the merry-go-round. Rating: 3/5.

5/28/09: Folks! (1992)

There may be, I suppose, a way to construct a comedy around the subject of dementia. I've never seen it done successfully, but I don't entirely discount the possibility, unlikely as it seems—just as a comedy with jokes about rape would be difficult to imagine. But if there were a man to attempt it, Robert Klane is unquestionably that man.

Klane is the author of various black-comedy films, starting with 1970's Where's Poppa?, about a man torn between taking care of his aging mother and bumping her off. Klane is clearly a man with major parental issues, for the identical theme (with a similarly punctuated title) resurfaces in Folks!, about a man torn between taking care of his aging parents and bumping them off. (Klane also wrote one of the blackest of black comedies, Weekend at Bernie's, about a couple of guys carrying around a corpse.)

Folks! features a tragically mustache-free Tom Selleck as a stockbroker whose life goes directly into the toilet when he starts to care for his elderly parents, who have various physical and mental problems. Nearly all of the humor in the film derives from the series of mishaps that Selleck suffers during his new role as caretaker (he loses his family, his job, even a toe and a testicle, although I missed his mustache the most) and the fact that his father (Don Ameche) has Alzheimer's, which leads to the "hilarious" burning down of his own house.

Whether this material could have been amusing in the hands of a different crew, or whether it was doomed to failure because of the subject matter, I honestly don't know, but Folks! is unbearably excruciating from beginning to end. (I might have chuckled once accidentally.) There's a scene toward the end of the movie where Selleck, hoping that his suicidal parents will die in a horrible car accident, knowingly sends them out on the highway—giving no thought to how this might affect, for example, other drivers carrying small children in their vehicles. And he's the hero of this film! Folks! is mean-spirited and jarringly unfunny—easily among the worst movies I have seen all year, or ever. Rating: 1/5.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

5/27/09: Crossing Delancey (1988)

Interesting but inadvertent sequencing: We followed up two comedy-Westerns with two charming romantic comedies. Peter Riegert (one of the best parts of National Lampoon's Animal House) and Amy Irving play two Jewish singles set up by a modern-day matchmaker in Manhattan and slowly—painfully slowly—start a romance. But the anticipation is mouth-watering.

Irving, looking dreamier than I've ever seen her, initially spurns pickle seller Riegert in favor for a more "intellectual" writer, but ultimately realizes she's thrown back the wrong fish. It's hard to figure out why; the viewer senses that the writer is a first-class creep and that Riegert is the far more sensible choice 20 minutes into the picture.

It's always a delight to come across a genuinely smart, funny and romantic comedy like this one. This was the only screen credit of legendary Yiddish stage actress Reizl Bozyk, who is very amusing as Irving's grandmother. And I wondered if film recommender Merf realizes that the music group The Roches, whom I keep foisting upon her, sang all of the songs in the movie, including the oft-played cover of "Come Softly to Me"—and that vocalist Suzzy Roche plays the friend of Irving's whom she introduces to Riegert, with disastrous results. In any case, Delancey is delicious. Rating: 5/5.

Monday, June 01, 2009

5/26/09: Something's Gotta Give (2003)

Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton are paired up in Something's Gotta Give, a hopelessly contrived, embarrassingly corny, purely by-the-numbers, excruciatingly predictable—and, yes, totally charming—romantic comedy.

The plot couldn't be simpler: Nicholson (66 years old at the time of release) is dating perky young Amanda Peet, then slowly comes to find he's falling in love with her more age-appropriate mother (Keaton, 57). Even though I felt like I'd seen this film a dozen times before—and done better—it's still confoundingly entertaining and nearly impossible to dislike, all thanks to the boundless appeal of its two soon-to-be-crotchety stars. Jack plays his usual horndog character (when he announces that he isn't good at being monogamous, you're not exactly reeling from the shock), but with a dash more heart and soul. And Keaton couldn't be more perfect for her role as a woman who initially resents Jack but, like many a lass before her, winds up succumbing to his devilish grin.

All of the usual romcom elements are present and accounted for, including conflicts and complications you can see coming 20 minutes before they happen...but there's something to be said for predictability, and the movie feels like a comfortable, well-worn pair of shoes. Something's Gotta Give only veers into awfulness once, during an extended sequence that calls for Keaton to sob incessantly and annoyingly (Jesus, was I delighted when that scene ended). Conversely, the scene where Jack and Diane spend their first night together is funny, moving and unforgettable. The question of whether Nicholson would eventually win the girl was moot, as this was Merf's recommendation—I knew it would have the required happy ending. But I can't blame her for shattering any suspense; anybody watching this movie knows exactly how it's going to end about halfway through. The film goes down smooth and easy, like a nice, cold, familiar-tasting mug of root beer, and leaves you thirsty for more. Rating: 4/5.

5/25/09: The Frisco Kid (1979)

I happen to love Gene Wilder movies. I also happen to hate Gene Wilder movies. Let me resolve this apparent contradiction by saying that while many of his early 1970s comedies are pure gold, he stopped being funny sometime after 1976's The Silver Streak. I have seen only a handful of his output after this time, when he started to collaborate full time with his wife, Gilda Radner, and comedian Richard Pryor. Today's turd, released the year I graduated from high school, only confirms for me that whatever greatness Wilder films once had completely evaporated shortly after his efforts with Mel Brooks ended.

Even though Merf raved about this period comedy Western (the second in a row, following yesterday's John Wayne picture), my expectations were relatively low, given how I feel about Wilder's post-Brooksian output. In The Frisco Kid, Wilder is cast as Avram Belinski, an orthodox rabbi from Poland, sporting a full beard, talking in a thick accent and behaving alternately like an innocent naif and a total schlemiel. Arriving in Philadelphia in the mid 1800s, he must trek across the U.S. to San Francisco during the Gold Rush to lead a new congregation. Right off the bat, evil men start to beat him up, rob him and take advantage of his innocence. Eventually, he befriends a bank robber (Harrison Ford), and together they make the journey to Frisco on horseback together. Along the way, they encounter some Indians and, inevitably, the original bad guys who threatened Belinski.

Everything falls flat in this slow-moving and completely uninteresting saga. Wilder himself isn't bad as the beleaguered rabbi—he makes full use of his wide-eyed innocence and amusing accent—but the script is abysmally weak, and all of the characters are unforgivably cartoonish and one-dimensional. One running joke involves Belinski learning and then uttering the word "shit," and the so-called comedy never rises much above that level. Another dumb scene trades on contrived homoerotic humor as Ford must hug Wilder to keep warm as they sleep outside in the snow. Har har.

Admittedly, I have always had an extremely difficult time with movies that ask me to sympathize with crooks, hit men and other bad guys. Ford—who inexplicably took this job between his first two Star Wars hits—is an unapologetic thief who regularly frisks train passengers and banks of their cash. And he's one of the heroes of the film! We're supposed to lose our heart to this ruffian because he acts as Wilder's protector; sorry, I couldn't go there—and it's hard to like a movie where you're praying for the hero to take a bullet. (Ironically, Ford's role was originally supposed to have been played by John Wayne, the star of yesterday's cowboy comedy.)

There are so many aspects of this movie that I found repellent, but the absolute nadir was the moronic miscasting of perennial TV actor Val Bisoglio (an Italian-American) as an Indian chief. Merf, you may consider us even for my forcing The Contender on you. This was just yecccch. Rating: 2/5.