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Vanishing Point

Anyone looking or hoping for substance should probably pull over...
Auto delivery driver in Denver--a war veteran and former police officer, motorcycle racer and racecar driver--is assigned to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum to San Francisco in three days. He buys some speed from a drug dealer to stay awake, casually betting the cost of the pills on his trip, claiming he can make it to his destination by 3 p.m. The next day--a total of 1200 miles. His buddy takes him up on it, laughing, probably thinking it can never be done. Almost immediately, two motorcycle cops try pulling the driver over. He outwits them with some very ballsy maneuvering behind the wheel and the chase is on! For auto aficionados, this one's a no-brainer; for the rest of us, a laconic, often brilliantly cinematic microcosm of America's Southwest in the '70s as seen from the front seat of a white Dodge Challenger. Barry Newman gets top billing, but the Dodge is the real star, as well as cinematographer John A. Alonzo (doing astoundingly fluid work). Dean Jagger is also impressive as a desert dweller and rattlesnake wrangler. Newman's driver is an unintentional rebel: he cares about the well-being of the guys he runs off the road, he doesn't smoke pot, he loves playing the radio. It's entirely plausible he would become a folk hero to the listeners of a broadcast wherein a blind disc jockey is engaged in reporting his progress on the highways. From a technical standpoint, the movie is an eyeful. **1/2 from ****

Stonestreet: Who Killed the Centerfold Model?

Barbara Eden undercover in the cleanest X-rated movie theater in Los Angeles!
Barbara Eden as a widowed ex-cop-turned-private detective in Los Angeles (with the improbable name of Liz Stonestreet) who goes undercover as a cashier at an erotic movie theater to find the missing 26-year-old manager whose locker turns up antique jewelry and clippings on a missing socialite. Would-be pilot for a nonexistent series, which may explain why everyone plays it so coy (particularly Eden, who gets giddy when her boss gives her the go-ahead to buy a new outfit). Supporting cast exceptional (including Joan Hackett, Louise Latham, Richard Basehart, Sally Kirkland and Elaine Giftos), but TV cop shows of the era were already successfully mining this milieu.

Dead of Night

Creepy early effort from director Bob Clark
Middle-class family is informed by the military that their soldier son was killed overseas; the mother is adamant her son is still alive and will return to them...and so he does, to everyone's eventual dismay. Shuddery low-budget horrors given a stark simplicity by a pre-"Black Christmas" Bob Clark. The cast (including John Marley and Lynn Carlin from John Cassavetes' "Faces") is solid, and Alan Ormsby's script, loosely based on the uncredited short story "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs, is compact and taut. Not a pleasant moment to be had, but aficionados of the genre should enjoy having their nerves jangled. ** from ****

Tourist Trap

That "Twilight Zone" episode with the mannequins was a lot more fun...
Group of older teens on a mountain road run afoul of the owner of a defunct tourist spot now overrun by suspiciously lifelike mannequins. Ridiculous, lethargic horror piece certainly gets no points for originality. Screenwriters David Schmoeller (who also directed) and J. Larry Carroll (who also produced) have come up with an outrageous and inept hybrid of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", "House of Wax" and "Psycho" (with a bit of "Carrie"-like telekinesis added to the mix, apparently a demand handed down from executive producer Charles Band). The kids escape and are brought back, escape and are brought back, while Schmoeller keeps the ladies crawling across floors, scaling wire fences and running through misty forests at night. "Tourist Trap" may work for those creeped-out by mannequins in general; the dummies on-display here (both living and dead) have a fleshy texture and roving eyes, but Vincent Price is sorely missed when it comes down to dipping the girls in goop. * from ****

Swan Song

Bathetic, 'wistful' character portrait with a somewhat disoriented camp undermining.
Udo Kier gives an oddly muffled performance as a retired hairdresser in Ohio--once called "the Liberace of Sandusky"--who is now wasting away in a nursing home; he's offered the opportunity to do the hair of a wealthy former client (and former friend) who recently passed away and requested his services in her will. When writer-director Todd Stephens isn't being 'artistic' with the occasional slow-motion effect, he delights in being facetious in a most annoying way with his narrative (as with a long conversation between the hairdresser and a friend from the good old days that turns out to be a daydream). Almost all the performances are uneven or overworked, while Stephens' dialogue is dotted with sadly ironic little truths meant to get us in the gut. Kier has a lovely moment hugging the gravestone of his lover, and one more talking to the deceased woman's grandson about the parties she gave that he never came to, but that's it. The characters on Mr. Pat's journey (particularly a group of women in an all-black beauty shop and a young gay bartender in a backwards baseball hat) are an unreal lot, while the humor and most of the sentiment feels fraudulent. Those shots of Kier shuffling down the sidewalk in a mint-green pantsuit and velvet chapeau are great for trailers and teasers, but there's nothing going on underneath these images for us to attach our emotions to. Mr. Pat, who has a fetish for folding napkins and packets--and is, at best, lethargically snappy when the spirit moves him--is meant to be a leftover from the old school, but he's more like a refugee from another country. I don't know whether Stephens' depiction of a nursing home as a deathtrap is meant to trigger our collective fears of growing old and useless or to serve as a springboard for hope once our protagonist walks out the door. It may be neither: the whole old folks' home opener is a con-job, anyway, with Stephens using it merely to press our buttons. A mess! * from ****

Being the Ricardos

"It might have been Lucy in 'All About Eve'...and she would have blown the doors off the place!"
As TV's "I Love Lucy" reaches 20 million households a week in the US in the early 1950s, it's star, Lucille Ball, is fighting Communist affiliation rumors started by columnist Walter Winchell; she's also fighting with husband and co-star Desi Arnaz about his lack of marital attention and is about to reveal to the television audience that both she and her TV-counterpart, Lucy Ricardo, are "expecting". Although this handsomely-produced portrait of the legendary actress is an entertaining one, there are a myriad of timeline issues and anachronisms within the film which "I Love Lucy" purists are bound to be troubled by. There's also a hurdle in buying Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz (Bardem has Desi's Cuban-accented voice--and his flirtatious charms--down, but he's too old for the role). Kidman fares better as Lucy, proving her naysayers wrong and giving a wry, tough, courageous performance. Lucy's off-camera relationship with Vivian Vance (played by Nina Arianda) is curiously edgy despite reports throughout the years these two were the best of friends; meanwhile, codger William Frawley (J. K. Simmons) is shown to be irascible yet cogent and sharp in place of the heavy drinker Arnaz went out on a limb to have cast. I didn't care for the documentary-like framing device of the show's creators discussing the series in the present day (there's enough flashbacks and flash-forwards happening here); however, when writer-director Aaron Sorkin gets down to business, he delivers some terrifically tasty behind-the-scenes action. **1/2 from ****

Don't Look Up

It's the end of the world as we know it...and "everything's fine!"
Two American astronomers are met with skepticism and indifference from the media and the internet-at-large to their devastating discovery that a humongous comet will hit and decimate Earth in just 6mos. Director and co-writer Adam McKay, working from an original treatment by himself and David Sirota, owes a little something to Paddy Chayefsky and "Network"--but I believe Chayefsky would be proud of the broadly absurdist, acidic satire here. The performances are sharp and knowing, although McKay's various asides don't always have the sting they're meant to (often they cheapen the film's overall impact). After mulling it over, of course, the picture is really quite sad and depressing, if exceptionally accomplished. **1/2 from ****

Nightmare Alley

The Great American existential portrait of a man in crisis...or just a rags-to-riches-to-rags story?
William Lindsay Gresham's novel gets a second noir screen treatment following the 1947-Tyrone Power version about a self-described hustler in the 1930s who drifts into a traveling freak-show carnival after literally setting his past ablaze. The film has been crafted with style by director Guillermo del Toro (who also co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay-adaptation with Kim Morgan), but it is in no way a profound work--it's all flash. Many will no doubt add their lofty labels to the picture, but I saw it more simply: a rags-to-riches-to-rags melodrama, with a circular finish that didn't sneak up on me or shock me (it plays flatly). Bradley Cooper is solid in the lead role; it isn't a knockout performance, but then I'm not sure either del Toro or Cooper (who also co-produced) meant it to be. Cooper's Stanton Carlisle is, basically, a jerk--an opportunist who seems oblivious of his actions (which is just how Tyrone Power played him in the original). When one of the carnies dies of wood alcohol poisoning--from a bottle given to him by Carlisle, who had to sneak around to get it--we're not sure if this was intentional or a mistake or an act of mercy (the screenplay tries to have it all three ways). Carlisle is haunted--but is it by guilt...remorse...regret? He's an enigma, and a lot of moviegoers will have fun trying to figure him out. Two years after leaving the carnival, wherein he took a hopeful young woman he had emboldened with him, Carlisle has come up with a mind-reading act that he performs with his wife in fancy supper clubs; this is where he comes across Cate Blanchett as a poison-beauty psychologist (and we hardly needed to see Stanton's treacherous tarot card reading to understand she will lead to his downfall). "Nightmare Alley" has a striking Art Deco and snow-swept design that is giddily beautiful--you can enjoy the film purely on visual terms--but the story gives up on itself at a crucial point in the picture. Yes, everything has to go wrong--that's the trap of the "Nightmare"--but the actions of the characters (particularly Rooney Mara's good-girl, Molly) are infuriatingly stupid. Why everyone suddenly has to become hysterical and the plot to lose its logic to get us to that ending is beyond me. It felt like a slap in the face to see the house of cards come down this way. I'm sure all the talents involved thought they were giving us a delicious, twisty plot that would also make us think, but when the people we've been watching and have become absorbed by start acting foolish just to push things along, I sense a calculated and mechanical process behind the imagery. Is the film worth-watching? I would say yes, it's above-average, but it leaves one feeling bitter and used, and I'm not sure if or why del Toro was aiming for such a response. It's a fever dream, but the details don't add up and the action stops making sense. I wanted to feel exhilarated by the protagonist's comeuppance, but the filmmaker apparently wants our sympathies too and it doesn't wash. **1/2 from ****

Licorice Pizza

Slight-seeming but intermittently captivating...
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's paean to the 1970s California teenager fidgets around so much--what with stop-and-start episodes that don't really go anywhere in particular but, instead, "build momentum" as they say--some viewers may start wondering around the one-hour mark what the movie is going to be about. Cooper Hoffman (the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a real find as a 15-year-old go-getter; rushing around on pure youthful adrenaline, he's a sweet kid who hustles himself first before delivering product, parlaying his schemes into reality. Before she knows it, Alana Haim's "older woman", a kids' photographer in her twenties, is meeting this kid for a soda. She's dazzled by his self-assurance but keeps her awe somewhat in check. This seems an unlikely match--what 20-year-old girl hangs around with a teenage boy?--but with Anderson guiding us through their many assorted misadventures, it's easy to buy into this relationship. "Licorice Pizza" is slight, but admirers of Anderson's style will likely be captivated and won't care. Initially, the dialogue between Hoffman and Haim is unreal (she's at his school for Picture Day); however, once Hoffman demonstrates to her that he's a doer--a teenage actor, an entrepreneur, a businessman--she becomes his partner, his driver...but not his girlfriend! It's an amusingly simple movie with complicated emotions running all the way through it. I don't feel Anderson brought the film to a satisfactory close (the editing seems a little lax and the staging is disappointing), but these kids are quite extraordinary to watch and the eclectic supporting cast is full of interesting oddballs. *** from ****

Rifkin's Festival

"Despite all my talk about existential freedom and Dionysius...I'm a middle-class Jew from the Bronx."
The latest comedy from writer-director Woody Allen is an odd one from the get-go: Wallace Shawn stands in for the leading man (in what would normally be the typical Allen role) of an essay writer/film history teacher/would-be novelist who must accompany his press agent wife to Spain for the San Sebastian Festival. There, she becomes smitten with a "pretentious film director" from France while disparaging her husband's neuroses, while he harbors chest pains and harks back to his past disappointments by dreaming himself into various scenarios which emulate Welles, Fellini, Truffaut, et al. Despite his age (he was 75 or 76 when this film was shot), Shawn is more than capable at carrying a comedy--his instantly identifiable voice is a pleasure to listen to. However, this type of comedy--one centering on the relationship of a married couple (one wherein the husband is busy pondering the Meaning of Life and the wife is played by glamorous Gina Gershon)--is not a proper fit for Shawn. The actor's ultra-casual clothes and balding head are probably meant to be endearing, but when his character expresses the same old Woody Allen hang-ups (such as the eternal "Why are we here?"), one can't help questioning this man's agenda...has he been asking "Why are we here?" all this time? The lack of really sharp one-liners makes itself felt, but the supporting cast is fine, the production is handsome, and Allen keeps a smooth, jaunty pace. ** from ****

Baba Yaga

An outrageous disaster...
Female photographer (the sulky, rail-thin Isabelle De Funès, coiffed with Louise Brooks' hairdo) is bewitched and cursed by the title-named sorceress, a predatory lesbian with kinky inclinations. Of all the sexploitation films Carroll Baker made overseas once her fortunes ran dry in Hollywood, this may be the strangest. Baker stepped into the role of chalky-white, cool-to-the-touch Baba Yaga after actress Anne Heywood dropped out at the 11th hour. Although she looks spookily tantalizing in her black mink ensembles, Baker's intensity goes wasted in this dubbed, choppy Italian-French co-production with a breast fixation. The pop art flourishes in De Funès' studio--complete with a see-through clear rotary phone--are amusing, as is composer Piero Umiliani's throbbing/sensual score. Director Corrado Farina nearly took his name off the credits when he discovered the negative had been reedited against his wishes (this review is based on the 89mn print, which seems comprised of already-existing and previously excised footage). *1/2 from ****

The French Connection

"All right, Popeye's here!"
Hammering, combative, often confusing box-office giant from director William Friedkin, who won the Oscar for helming this adaptation of Robin Moore's nonfiction book set in New York City. Detectives in the Narcotics Division, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman, also an Oscar winner) and his partner, "Cloudy" (Roy Scheider), shake down modern-day mobsters and a high-ranking lawyer involved in drug-smuggling operation. The grit is vivid and real--you can practically feel it on your fingertips. Friedkin is so in control of the camera, his kinetic energy becomes the movie's motor (he's as much of a star in the picture as is Hackman). The prologue in Marseille--which is supposed to set up the story--is stagnant, however, and nobody in the picture is at all likable (which of course was the idea: a new-fangled crime-drama wherein everybody and everything is scum). Also won Oscars for editing, Ernest Tidyman for his screenplay-adaptation, and for Best Picture. Followed in 1975 by a sequel.

Halloween Kills

Well, the music score is nice...
Follow-up to, among other films in the canon, 2018's "Halloween", again directed by David Gordon Green, rather adroitly ties in flashbacks to--and new events from--that film and John Carpenter's original "Halloween" from 1978 (with Donald Pleasence lookalike Tom Jones Jr playing Dr. Loomis). Haddonfield survivors from '78's rampage band together with the 2018 characters to take down boogeyman Michael Myers, who somehow escaped the fire set by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the last installment. But what begins as an interesting concept soon turns into yet another illogical hack-'em-up, with Michael's victims acting like foolish sitting ducks (in a ridiculous sequence, Michael eliminates each member of a firefighting team--one at a time, because that's the way they do things in these movies--leaving the whole crew decimated). Curtis, recovering from surgery at Haddonfield Hospital, consoles a wounded police officer who blames himself for Michael's killing spree (seems he stopped Loomis from shooting Michael in the head in 1978--but, since Myers "isn't flesh and blood like the rest of us", the conversation isn't useful or productive). When an angry mob finally encircles Michael and has him on the ground, one might think executive producers Curtis and Carpenter would be happy to call it a night...not in Haddonfield, it seems, nor in sequel-hungry Hollywood. *1/2 from ****

Gunman's Walk

Odd casting pays off, though script is on the outlandish side...
Powerful rancher dotes on his eldest son while his younger boy fails to assert himself; all that changes, however, after the older kid is accused of murder. Columbia western photographed in CinemaScope is engrossing and surprisingly well-acted, if curiously cast. Tab Hunter may pass muster as Van Heflin's son, but he and James Darren are unlikely brothers. Nevertheless, all three actors are solid, even as Frank S. Nugent's screenplay gets more outlandish with each new turn, leading to a preposterous finale. While it is unique to see a father and son squaring off, the scene makes no sense in the context of this story (and neither does Heflin's dialogue at this point). Hunter is to be commended for taking on this unlikable role--that of a cocky, scurrilous bully with no conscience--and yet the character's behavior as written is unbelievable. Director Phil Karlson, shooting on both sets and on various Arizona locations, delivers a tough, mercurial picture, though it isn't one that leaves positive feelings behind. **1/2 from ****

The Slugger's Wife

One might call this a foul ball...
Right fielder for the Atlanta Braves falls for an aspiring rock singer with big dreams; she becomes his good luck charm and marries him, but also wants him to succeed on his own without holding her hand. The combination of director Hal Ashby with screenwriter Neil Simon should've been more interesting than this! The picture has no rhythm: Ashby's timing is shot, he can't build any momentum with the love story, and his actors appear desperate. Tepid leads Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca & De Mornay give ruinous performances (she sings nondescript versions of Prince and Bruce Springsteen songs that wouldn't have garnered applause on Star Search). Supporting cast including Martin Ritt (the director going back to acting) and Randy Quaid fares no better (Ritt's coach decides the best medicine for a heartbroken O'Keefe is to "get him laid", and three girls in a nightclub are rounded up like cattle). A handful of highly-acclaimed filmmakers from the 1970s seemed to bottom-out in the '80s--the decade just left them behind. Ashby is unfortunately one of these casualties, but what was Neil Simon's excuse? * from ****

Uncle Frank

Not an audience grabber...
In 1973, perky, pretty New York City student (by way of Creekville, SC) is anxious for her new boyfriend to meet her Uncle Frank, an English professor at their college whom she's adored for years; dropping in unexpectedly during a party at his apartment, she's surprised to discover her favorite uncle has a male lover. Something of a disappointment coming from writer-director Alan Ball, who also co-produced the film for Amazon Studios with his partner, Peter Macdissi, who plays boyfriend Wally. Obviously a project made with taste and style, yet the film is lumpy with exposition (everything is spelled out, either verbally or visually) and the character of Wally never becomes real for us. Macdissi has proven to be an actor of marvelous capabilities, but he's overeager here and off-putting (and this appears to be entirely intentional). Paul Bettany's far-away Frank isn't appealing, either; however, young Sophia Lillis, despite a penchant for overdoing her slow-starting crooked smile, is a charmer. Scene after scene feels half-finished and aloof, though the period flavor is kept subtle and some of the dialogue exchanges have a nice, easy flow. Although the film was initially screened at Sundance, it debuted as an Amazon Prime Video selection and thus garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Television Movie.

A Separate Peace

"With you, it's different..."
Many years after graduating college in New Hampshire in 1942, a nostalgic man revisits the campus of his alma mater in the off-season and reminisces about his roommate, a gregarious and reckless lad who goaded his friends into living for the day, breaking the rules and--most especially--jumping out of a tall tree in into the lake below. Overlooked film version of John Knowles' semi-autobiographical novel (which, in turn, was expanded from his short story "Phineas") has a deeply personal feel even on the screen. While Knowles denied any homoerotic undercurrents in the text, those who do sense an attraction between the roommates, played here by John Heyl and Parker Stevenson, are bound to be the film's biggest admirers (when the novel is discussed in schools, it is said that homosexuality is never brought up in class, yet that hasn't stopped some schools from banning the book). There's a lovely simplicity--and, conversely, an unspoken complexity--in the friendship between the young men, which screenwriter Fred Segal cautiously, carefully tiptoes through (which is better than being tiptoed around). Director Larry Peerce works well with his actors, most of them non-professionals, and shows a keen, stylish eye for the period (surprising, since Peerce at this point had not shown much sensitivity). Not a hit with audiences, the picture grossed just under $1M at the US box office and was promptly forgotten, but it has a special sort of gleam. **1/2 from ****

King Kong

Not a threat to the 1933 version, but not bad...
Expedition team on an island in the Indian Ocean discovers a gigantic gorilla. Worthy remake of the 1933 classic doesn't quite have the heart of the original, although newcomer Jessica Lange is a terrific update of the Screaming Mimi (she takes a tougher, more ballsy approach to the part and is quite fetching). Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. Had a lot to live up to, but he does a very decent job introducing the new characters. Still, memories of the original Kong and Fay Wray are tough to abandon. Two Oscar nominations: for Best Sound and Richard H. Kline's cinematography. The special effects team received a Special Achievement Oscar for their work. One BAFTA nomination: Best Production Design. Oddly, no nominations for John Barry's rousing score. **1/2 from ****

Japanese Story

No point to make, but the emotions are heartfelt
Australian drama stars Toni Collette as the director of a software company in Perth acting as hostess to a potential buyer visiting from Japan; they have the usual difficulties (both cultural and ideological) understanding one another, and she's angered by becoming his chauffeur, but they eventually discover a surprising mutual attraction out on the open road. Story of a quickly-formed relationship takes a sudden turn in its third act, becoming an emotional study of human despair. I haven't always been a fan of Collette's work; I don't see the appeal in the choices she makes as an actress, nor in the projects she takes on (she gives herself over to her roles, yes, but always to a fault. I feel she bleeds out her characters, obliterating whatever our feelings are towards the women she's portraying). Director Sue Brooks makes the mistake of doting on Collette's openly panicked expression until we have the actress's face practically memorized: the high forehead, the crooked nose, the round, searching eyes and parted lips (always on the verge of saying something). That aside, I was moved by Collette's performance here: first, by her animal-like confusion and fear, followed by a deeply-felt inner sadness and, finally, acceptance. It's a true actors' turn, though not without some missteps (Collette has a burst of anger when she first returns to her office that makes her seem a bit frightening, behavior which is then matched by her weirdly robotic walk). "Japanese Story", written by Alison Tilson, doesn't really have a point to make; however, when the emotions of the piece take over, everything seems to click into place--and Brooks' finale is heartfelt and true. The winner of a whopping eight Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film. **1/2 from ****

Daddy's Gone A-Hunting

Stalker melodrama has tight wrap-up but isn't much more than a soap opera
Newly-arrived in San Francisco from the UK, pretty young artist has a meet-cute with a strange, handsome photographer at the bus terminal (he throws a snowball at her head). He fixes her up with a job interview and they move in together, but he has responsibility issues and won't earn his share, throwing her out of her own apartment after she asks him to see a psychiatrist. Melodrama from screenwriters Larry Cohen and Lorenzo Semple Jr., from Cohen's original treatment, skips ahead fitfully; before we know it, the girl has had an abortion, the ex-boyfriend finds out and is furious, and she's gotten married to another man. Purports to be "adult entertainment", but director Mark Robson is still playing the same coy games (when the girl gets undressed to make love, the camera drops to her clothes hitting the floor). Unsettling scenes are entwined with phony soap opera hysterics, while the performers look somewhat unsure of themselves. ** from ****

Buchanan Rides Alone

The old money-in-the-saddlebag story...
Terrible western from esteemed director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott, who also served as associate producer. On his way home to Texas, rancher named Tom Buchanan stops off in a California border town where he's robbed of his saddlebag full of cash. He finds himself in the middle of a family feud, and becomes a sympathizer with a Mexican kid out for revenge. Adaptation of Jonas Ward's novel "The Name's Buchanan" (the first of many Tom Buchanan adventures) is stilted and confused, a mess. Lucien Ballard, of all people, is credited with the gloppy cinematography in Columbia Color. *1/2 from ****

The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart

Egocentric mechanisms...
Robert T. Westbrook adapted his own acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel about a Columbia University student in his third year who drops out (a fashionable way of expressing yourself in 1970). The protagonist, Stanley Sweetheart (hailed by literary critics at the time as a successor to Holden Caulfield), is played in the film by a young, high-voiced Don Johnson, whose performance failed to impress Village Voice critic Molly Haskell (she remarked, "The only thing that stands out about Don Johnson is the black roots of his blond hair."). Self-assured, sex-obsessed Stanley lives off-campus in his own apartment: he makes 16mm films; he hates the noise of construction-ridden New York City; he swats at bugs on the carpet; he disgustedly wads up a letter from his woebegone mother, who wonders if he'll ever have a productive life. So far, so good (except for the Michel Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman-composed opening song--some woozy thing that asks if a tree falls in a forest...). There's a lot of talk about pot smoking, decadent materialism, "being free to really be free", masturbation, getting laid, also an attempted homosexual pickup (which freaks our hero out). Westbrook and director Robert Horn want their movie to connect with the kids but not in a direct way (that might be too square). Instead, Horn and his editor give us a somewhat fragmented look at a young man's life in 1970; however, Stanley's day-to-day non-routine doesn't really require this kind of jagged treatment (for instance: when Stanley deflowers the pretty girl in his linguistics class, the moment is extra tender, followed by a bubblegum-music montage of boy-girl coupling with 'cute' nudity). It isn't much of a picture--and one that MGM apparently had no invested interest in--but Johnson is a definite presence (especially in his scenes with Holly Near as his girlfriend's roommate and Michael Greer as a former student at Juilliard). The milieu, now dated, is interesting as a time capsule (including a cameo by Candy Darling at a drug orgy); but "Magic Garden" isn't a magical character study--it's stunted by its overall narrow view of life. When kids try to act like grown-ups but realize they're really just dumb kids, the audience is apt to respond, "What else is new?" ** from ****

Paint Your Wagon

"You can't have both of us!" .. "Why not?" .. "Why not??" .. "Why not!"
Elephantine musical western via the Broadway hit by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe comes to the screen with uneasy, unappealing casting and a galumphing Joshua Logan direction. Lee Marvin stars as a California prospector from No Name City who comes across gold while burying the casualty of a wagon wreck. He becomes prospecting partners with the dead man's brother (Clint Eastwood, who sings), and both men are soon infatuated with one of the wives (Jean Seberg) of a newly-arrived Mormon. Gold rush hoopin', hollerin' and singin'--but, on a $20M budget, the picture struggled to return a profit with just $32M in box office receipts. By the time the tent city is crashing down around the stars, one is less interested in the overall film than as an example of the overproduced, overlong (at 154mns) big-budget Hollywood musical run amok. But good news for Marvin: his gravel-voiced rendition of "Wand'rin' Star" hit No. 1 on the UK music charts. One Oscar nomination: for Best Score of a Musical, Original or Adaptation (Nelson Riddle).

The Final Countdown

Plot fascinating, performances less so
The USS Nimitz in 1980 runs into a vortex at sea; the captain initially suspects war, although he's picking up Jack Benny on the air! Time-transport adventure sends the officers and crew back to Pearl Harbor in 1941, just prior to the attack by the Japanese. Intriguing science-fiction premise from four screenwriters (David Ambrose, Gerry Davis, Thomas Hunter and Peter Powell) makes for a fascinating if awesomely-extended B-budget epic. Director Don Taylor keeps the action rousing but doesn't pay enough attention to the performances, which are mostly dull. **1/2 from ****


"I wasn't at all satisfied with our results this morning." .. "You mean, he didn't go doo doo?"
Harried dogwalker in New York City can't seem to get out of his small apartment: the movers keep putting him off and the office receptionist is a flibbertigibbet. Unfunny comedy starring Elliott Gould does have an amusingly absurdist introduction (the city traffic moves around Gould backwards while he walks forwards), which director Stuart Rosenberg then fritters away. Working from a gross, would-be existential screenplay by Stanley Hart and Joel Lieber (via Lieber's novel), Rosenberg tries goosing the action with arty shots (such as filming through lattice work) and fantasy snippets, thus affording Gould the opportunity to "get loose". What Gould really needed was a stronger script and tighter direction. The blooming star made a number of films back-to-back in the early 1970s--most of them pop-crack quickies like "Move"--oversaturating the film market with his anarchic "personality" and causing him to fall out of favor with US audiences. *1/2 from ****

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