Thursday, December 3, 2020

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1970: Summertime Cinema

Yesterday took us from January into the spring; today, we look at the films of the summer (excepting Oscar and other awards nominees). Again, I'm going by the qualifying LA releases, except for The Human Condition (that's IMDb info).

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Myra Breckinridge

A pair of queer camp cult classics, both produced by 20th Century Fox. Beyond, as an opening disclaimer is at pains to underline, has nothing to do with the original Valley of the Dolls beyond (heh) its title and a scene where one girl takes pills. Scripted by Roger Ebert (yup!), it was the first "legitimate" studio fare by exploitation master Russ Meyer; naturally, his first Hollywood film is about how the evils of Hollywood, a place where starry-eyed innocents (however loosely we want to use that term) are destroyed by the murderous, lusty, drug-fueled insiders, executives, and "geniuses" running the town. Myra Breckinridge, come to think of it, isn't so different, though its titular anti-heroine has arrived to turn the tables. Beyond was a hit, Myra bombed; both are masterpieces. Myra's more under-sung, though I think it's been getting a reappraisal Myra herself would be proud of: the costumes are divine, the editing - which includes the splicing-in of old movies as shockingly blue commentary - is creative and effective, and Raquel Welch's star performance is perfection. Beyond has been and always will be great, thanks to its go-for-broke execution, extraterrestrial performances, and bangin' soundtrack.

Cotton Comes to Harlem

Harlem cops Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones are suspicious of a flashy back-to-Africa radical preacher, trying to figure out the connection to an out-of-place bale of cotton. A neo-noir with a sense of place and a social conscience: it doesn't poo-poo activist movements, but it does have a healthy skepticism of messianic figures who may be exploiting a demographic that's endured centuries of gross abuse and exploitation, especially when it's their own people! I think it's wonderful, thanks in no small part to the confident direction by Ossie Davis, the chemistry between lead dicks Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge, the terrific soundtrack, and a thrilling climax at the Apollo Theater.

Kelly's Heroes

A group of disillusioned soldiers goes rogue to seize a cache of Nazi gold bars. Very long for what it is, with a sensibility and language that reads much more modern than it does 1940s, it's a nevertheless engaging film blending the war and heist genres. There's something hilarious - not complex, but hilarious - about the confusing bureaucracy and terrible communication in wartime finally getting in sync thanks to greed. Their triumph would be a cynical one, their defeat a humiliation. Telly Savalas is great.

Profound Desires of the Gods

Originally released in the United States as Kuragejima, Legends from a Southern Island. A small Japanese island is caught between modernization and their traditions; drama is centered around an incestuous family believed to have been cursed by the gods, and the arrival of an engineer representing the company all the islanders work for. I think the idea of it is wonderful, the cinematography breathtaking, the musical sequences effective. I don't think it justifies its nearly three-hour length, and at times, I was even ready to turn it off. Having said that...I haven't stopped thinking about it since watching it. It scares me in a good way.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

An American writer gets mixed up with a serial murder investigation in Italy. Dario Argento's directorial debut. Classy film with a pretty standard, procedural screenplay, buoyed by lovely cinematography, singular production design, a haunting score, and a twist where the who is predictable, but the why is a genuinely disturbing shock. Clever depiction of deceptive memory. There are gialli I like more, but this is a handsome production.

Cherry, Harry and Raquel!

Corrupt desert sheriff Harry's attempts to save his drug ring from a deadly former ally known as The Apache, while keeping mistresses Cherry and Raquel from meeting and sleeping together. It's not just the Apache threatening white man Harry's way of life, it's the attraction between these two women, something Russ Meyer, whose films frequently deal with the tension between modern and traditional sexual roles, explores violently, breast-bouncingly, even semi-psychedelically. Some of the best editing of Meyer's career, and that's saying something!

Darker Than Amber
John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee tracks the murderers of a beautiful blonde he rescued and fell for. Rod Taylor's not an obvious choice for the part, but he gets it - man, does he get it! In general, a well-executed b-grade adaptation of a work by one of the greatest American authors. The fight scenes hurt to watch; apparently, they were what convinced Bruce Lee to hire director Robert Clouse for Enter the Dragon.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Beautiful nomadic twink Mr. Sloane boards with a lonely middle-aged woman and her half-blind dad; there's a brother, too. Sloane is a sexual opportunist, equally willing up to a point with both brother and sister, fully aware of the power of his youth and beauty while also negotiating around their claims on money and property. A trio of fantastic character actors - Harry Andrews as the brother, Beryl Reid as the sister, and Alan Webb as the father - embodies the daft family. The costumes are a campy delight. There's many an eyebrow-raising turn in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, but none so much as the final fifteen minutes.

The Human Condition: A Soldier's Prayer

The final installment of Masaki Kobayashi's epic three-parter finally arrived almost a full decade after its immediate predecessor (though, worth noting, that makes it the only one to hit the US during the Vietnam War). The first two were, how shall I put it, not exactly a rip-roaring fun time. This somehow manages to best them in levels of emotional devastation. Our former idealist Kaji, knowing Japan's days are numbered, is single-minded in his mission to return home, home to his wife Michiko, whose visage he imagines on the face of every woman he meets. He meets soldiers who continue fighting, civilians who have taken desperate measures to survive, conquerors eager to humiliate him. His appeals for decency have become demands for moral consistency. when those demands aren't met, he is no longer disappointed, but exhausted. Starkly shot, emotionally scored, meticulously production designed, it's the perfect finale to Kobayashi's opus. The final shot!

Oscar nominees released in this period: Darling Lili (June), The Landlord (June), The Hawaiians (July), Lovers and Other Strangers (August)

Other films: Catch-22 (June), The Cheyenne Social Club (June), The Out-of-Towners (June), The Passion of Anna (July), Something for Everyone (August)

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