January 24th, 2014

TRACKDOWN (1976) **

Jim Mitchum is a good old boy from Montana. His sister (Karen Lamm) runs away from home and goes sightseeing on Hollywood Boulevard. Almost immediately after she steps off the bus, she is drugged, gang raped, and sold into prostitution. Mitchum comes looking for her and gets a gangbanger (Erik Estrada) and a social worker (Cathy Lee Crosby) to help in his search.

Trackdown sounds like a good exploitation vehicle. It definitely has a solid premise, I’ll give it that. (It sometimes plays like Death Wish Meets Angel.) However, it never really delivers the goods as it plays things pretty safe. The T & A quotient is low, as is the gratuitous violence. Richard T. (Futureworld) Heffron’s pedestrian direction certainly doesn’t help as most of the action sequences are fairly lethargic (the sequence in an elevator shaft goes on forever). We do get an OK transvestite fight scene though.

Mitchum is pretty bland in the lead, but the film does benefit from some choice supporting performances. Estrada is quite good as the gangbanger with a heart of gold, and Crosby isn’t too shabby either as the feisty social worker. The movie really belongs to Anne Archer, who plays Mitchum’s sister’s pimp. Let me repeat that: ANNE ARCHER PLAYS A PIMP IN THIS MOVIE. Sure, the flick isn’t very good; however seeing the usually buttoned-up Archer playing a sleazy, skanky temptress is almost reason enough to track down Trackdown.

SUNSET BLVD. (1950) ****

Sunset Blvd. is one of those movies that I have seen clips of on award shows, but had never actually sat down and watched. I knew all the big moments in the film (“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”, “I am big… It’s the pictures that got small”, the famous opening scene), and yet for one reason or another, I just never got around to seeing it. When our local theatre, The Clayton played the film the other night as part of their “Classic Movie Mondays”, I jumped at the chance to check it out.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is a washed-up silent movie star who sits alone in her decrepit mansion on the titular street writing a screenplay she thinks will lead to her big comeback. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who winds up at Norma’s mansion, seeking refuge from credit collectors. Norma asks Joe to work on her script and since he is in desperate need of money, he grudgingly agrees. Eventually, Norma falls for Joe and begins heaping lavish gifts on him. Feeling awkward about the whole situation, Joe flees the mansion and hangs out with a pretty script reader named Betty (Nancy Olson). Norma, who is already mentally unstable as it is, tries to commit suicide. Joe rushes back to her side and continues their love affair, but things get rocky once Joe starts collaborating with Betty on a new movie script.

You know, whenever I saw Gloria Swanson in the most famous snippets of Sunset Blvd., I kinda thought she was over the top. And to some degree, she is. However, now that I’ve seen those scenes in their proper context, her overly theatrical performance fits the material perfectly. Norma Desmond is a relic who is trapped in her own little bubble. Time has moved on, but she hasn’t. In many ways, she’s a tragic figure; especially when her butler is fueling her ego by writing fake fan letters to her. In some ways, she’s a monster; but a wholly sympathetic one.

Equally fascinating is the character of Joe. He uses Norma’s affections for his benefit, but he isn’t necessarily a bad man. He feels bad when she tries to take her life and even feels guilty about leading Betty on. What makes both characters work is that director Billy (Some Like It Hot) Wilder allows us to see what makes each character tick. Both of them are sort of stuck with each other and so caught up by their own desires that they fail to realize the inevitable.

What makes Sunset Blvd. so much fun is that it takes place in Hollywood. And I’m not talking about a phony movie version of Hollywood, but the real thing. There are a lot of celebrity cameos and subtle name-dropping to let you know that what is happening is happening in the here and now (or 1950 at least). Nowadays, this sort of thing is commonplace, but it really was novel when the film was released.

In short, Sunset Blvd. is a classic. It’s a near-perfect film full of heart, laughs, and heartbreak. I can’t believe it took me this long to see it.

Next week at the Clayton: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

THE KISS (1988) *** ½

Amy (Meredith Salenger) is a young girl whose mother dies in a mysterious car accident. Her aunt Felice (Joanna Pacula) comes to stay with her, and right away Amy notices she’s not quite right. As it turns out, Felice is a witch (or something) that is carrying a monster around inside of her. And pretty soon, she wants to pass the beastie onto Amy via the titular lip lock.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I put on The Kiss. Probably not much. But the flick managed to surprise me, repulse me, and make me laugh hysterically (in a good way). They just don’t make them like this anymore, folks.

The gore is rather stellar. There’s a squirmy scene where a chick’s leg falls off. We get a gruesome sequence where another babe gets her necklace caught in an escalator. There’s also a gnarly scissors in the neck effect, and a great electric garden shears through the stomach scene. But hands down the highlight comes when Salenger’s neighbor does battle with Pacula’s demon cat. She impales the beast on a rake and then slams that little shit into a nearby bug zapper and exclaims, “Fuck you, Felix!”

Folks, I live for shit like this.

The plot is fairly standard. The film plays like a variation on the usual Stepmother from Hell clichés, except with more glop, slime, and monsters. There are a few lulls, but whenever the movie is cooking, it turns things up to 11. Plus, Pacula is naked a lot; which helps tremendously.

BLIND WOMAN’S CURSE (1971) **

Meiko (Lady Snowblood) Kaji stars as a badass chick with a dragon head tattoo on her back. Her gang all have dragon scales tattooed on their backs as well, and when they stand in a row, it makes one big ass dragon. After Kaji accidentally blinds an innocent woman who is protecting her brother, the sightless lady vows revenge.

From the title, Blind Woman’s Curse sounds like it’s going to be a female version of Zatoichi. If you go into the movie expecting this (as I did), you are bound to be disappointed. (The alternate title, The Tattooed Swordsman is a lot more accurate.) After a pretty good opening, and a handful of bloody swordfights, the plot zigs when it really should’ve zagged. Instead of focusing on the blind woman’s quest for revenge (she’s really nothing more than a supporting player), the movie revolves around Kaji getting mixed up in a gang war with a rival clan (and there’s even a lovey-dovey subplot to further slow things down).

I’m not saying there aren’t some interesting ideas here. I liked the fact that Kaji is haunted by the bloodthirsty cat that licked the blind woman’s wounds. And the scene where the blind chick hacks off the gang member’s tattoos and leaves them out for Kaji to find is pretty sweet. But unfortunately, there’s a copious amount of subplots and comic relief (did we really need a gratuitous henchman who wears a stinky diaper?) that gum up the works. Not only that, but the final fight scene between Kaji and the blind chick is anticlimactic and disappointing.

AKA: The Tattooed Swordswoman. AKA: Black Cat’s Revenge. AKA: Strange Tales of Dragon Tattoo. AKA: The Haunted Life of a Dragon-Tattooed Lass.

RACE WITH DEATH (1976) **

Connie Stevens stars as an undercover cop trying to bust a heroin smuggling operation led by Cesare (National Lampoon’ Animal House) Danova. She poses as a pilot and offers to use her plane to run the drugs for him. However, Danova’s associate, William (Red Dawn) Smith takes off with the smack and Stevens has to catch him.

Race with Death often feels like a watered-down TV pilot version of a Ginger film. Although there are some moments of violence (most of which come when Smith loses his cool and blows someone away or sets them on fire), the situations seem like they came out of an Aaron Spelling cop show or something. In fact, I swear some of the music was stolen from Charlie’s Angels (and maybe Mission: Impossible too).

Stevens isn’t bad in the role, but the flick never gives her an opportunity to sex it up a bit. Give me Angie Dickinson in Police Woman any day. Smith is quite good though as the greedy henchman and is very menacing and unpredictable.

Hikmet Avedis’ pedestrian direction adds to the small screen-ish feeling of the film. The long car chase scene where Stevens pursues him in a rally car is the highlight of the otherwise ho-hum action flick. Avedis later went on to direct the much better Mortuary.

AKA: Scorchy.

MR. JEALOUSY (1998) ***

Noah Baumbach’s second film, Mr. Jealousy is a more polished affair than his first flick, Kicking and Screaming. It’s also a little bit more focused as much of the film revolves around a single character and not a group of friends. Sometimes, it veers into sitcom-ish types of situations and predicaments, but since they come out of the characters’ quirky insecurities, they can be easily forgiven.

Lester (Eric Stoltz) is in love with Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), but he becomes obsessed with her ex-boyfriends. When Lester finds out that one of her exes (Chris Eigeman) is attending a group therapy session, he joins the group hoping to get some dirt of Ramona’s past. Problems ensue when they wind up hitting it off with one another. Of course, Lester keeps his new friendship from Ramona and pretty soon, she begins to suspect Lester might be cheating on her.

At its core, the plot seems like it could be used for an episode of Seinfeld (there are a lot of scenes of people sitting in a diner and discussing trivial matters). Thanks to Baumbach’s dry wit (the group therapy scenes are quite funny) and the strength of the performances, it all plays better than it should. I particularly enjoyed seeing Peter Bogdanovich as the group therapist. And while some of the comedy is patchy in places, the chemistry between Stoltz and Sciorra make it work.

HER (2013) ** ½

In the near future, professional letter writer Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). He takes her on dates, introduces her to his friends, and even has sex with her. Most people are cool with it (it is the near future, after all), but his ex (Rooney Mara) kinda freaks out about it. But while Samantha helps bring Theodore out of his shell and builds his confidence, he has his heart broken when he finds out she’s been seeing other computer programs.

Her isn’t exactly a bad movie, but I’m not exactly sure I liked it. Yes, it’s funny that Joaquin Phoenix is in love with his computer. Yes, it’s not played for laughs, exactly; but it gets some anyway. I get that it’s a satire on today’s social media-obsessed culture. I get that it’s essentially your basic rom-com with a computer instead of a girl. Writer/director Spike Jonze hits all the notes you’d expect, but he doesn’t really do much more than that.

The film might’ve made for a quirky 90 minute comedy, but at nearly two hours, the flick runs out of things to say pretty quickly. The second hour in particular seems rather tired and is packed with many squirm-in-your-seat moments. And I don’t mean you squirm because it’s awkward seeing Phoenix breaking up with an inanimate object; you’re squirming because you already know where the ending is heading and you’re ready to get out of Dodge.

But everything leading up to that last hour or so is quite a lot of fun. It finds a nice balance between quirkiness and surreal; especially when Phoenix and his computer are in their “getting to know you” phase. Even though this stretch of the film is a bit reminiscent of Electric Dreams, it still works because Phoenix is really good. However, after about an hour of all this, the flick loses its charm as it becomes a little too self-satisfied with itself.