Film Review: The Connection (dir by Shirley Clarke)

1961’s The Connection opens with a title card and voice over from someone identifying himself as being J.J. Burden.  Burden explains that what we are about to see is the last known work of an aspiring documentarian named Jim Dunn.  Burden explains that, after he and Dunn filmed the footage that’s about to be shown, Dunn disappeared.  It was left to Burden to put the footage together and he swears that he has gone out of his way to stay true to Dunn’s intentions.

Of course, if you’ve watched enough old movies, you might recognize Burden’s resonate voice as belonging to the distinguished actor, Roscoe Lee Browne.  And, once the film starts, you may also notice that you’ve seen Jim Dunn in other movies.  That’s because Dunn is played by William Redfield, a character actor who specialized in playing professional types.

The Connection takes place in a New York loft.  A group of jazz musicians are waiting for their drug dealer.  Sometimes, they play music.  Sometimes, they look straight at the camera and answer questions about what it’s like to be a heroin addict.  While Burden always remains behind the camera, Jim Dunn occasionally steps in front of it and scolds the men for not being dramatic enough.  Dunn is attempting to stage reality.  Leach (Warren Finnerty), the most verbose of the addicts, taunts Dunn over never having done drugs himself.  Dunn jokingly says that maybe he could start with some marijuana.

This is no Waiting for Godot.  The dealer does eventually arrive.  His name is Cowboy and he’s slickly played by Carl Lee.  (Carl Lee was the son of Canada Lee, who appeared in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.  Sadly, 25 years after filming his role in The Connection, Lee would die of a heroin overdose.)  He’s accompanied by a flamboyant woman named Sister Salvation (Barbara Winchester).  As Burden films, the musicians enter a small bathroom one-by-one, so that they can shoot up.  Music is played.  Overdoses are dealt with.  And Dunn, who was originally so detached, becomes more and more drawn into the junkie life style…

Was The Connection the first mockumentary?  To be honest, I’m really not sure but it definitely has to be one of the first.  The beginning title card (and Burden’s narration) feels like it could easily be used in front of any of the hundreds of found footage horror films that have been released over the last few years.  The film itself makes good use of the found footage format, though it’s also trapped by the genre’s limitations.  With all of the action taking place in just one room, there’s no way that The Connection can’t feel stagey.  (And, indeed, it was based on a play.)  Along with detailing the lives of those on the fringes of society, The Connection makes some good points about the staging of reality, though it never goes quite to the lunatic extremes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust.

(The Cannibal Holocaust comparison is not as crazy as it may sound.  Much as how the arrogant filmmakers in Deodato’s film attempted to exploit the cannibals, Jim Dunn attempts to exploit the addicts.  When the addicts and Cowboy start pressuring Dunn to try heroin, it’s not that much different from the cannibals eating the cameraman in Cannibal Holocaust.  The exploited are getting their revenge.)

The Connection was the first dramatic film to be directed by documentarian Shirley Clarke and, like many of Clarke’s films, it struggled to find an audience.  (Both the film and Clarke would have to wait several decades before getting the recognition that they deserved.)  The subject matter was considered to be so sordid (and the language so shocking) that the film was originally banned in New York.  The filmmakers actually had to file a lawsuit to get the film released.  The New York State Court of Appeals ruled the film was “vulgar but not obscene.”

Seen today, the film seems to be neither vulgar nor obscene.  Instead, it seems like a time capsule of the era in which it was made.  We tend to think of the early 60s as a time of beach movies, drive-ins, early rock and roll, and Kennedy optimism.  The Connection reveals that there was a lot more going on than just that.

A Movie A Day #156: Slaughter (1972, directed by Jack Starrett)

The Mafia just pissed off the wrong ex-Green Beret.

After his father is blown up by a car bomb, Captain Slaughter (Jim Brown) single handily wipes out the Cleveland mob.  Only one gangster, Dominic Hoffo (Rip Torn), escapes to South America.  The Treasury Department (represented by Cameron Mitchell) sends Slaughter and two other agents (Don Gordon and Marlene Clark) after Hoffo.  Along with being a ruthless gangster, Hoffo is a viscous racist and is convinced that he will be able to easily take care of Slaughter.  Hoffo does not understand how much trouble he’s in.  No one stops Slaughter.

Produced by American International Pictures, Slaughter is one of the classic blaxploitation films. While it may not have the political subtext of some of the best blaxploitation films, Slaughter is a fast and mean action film, directed in a no nonsense manner by B-movie veteran Jack Starrett.  There is not a wasted moment to be found in Slaughter.  It starts and ends with cars exploding and, in between, it doesn’t even stop to catch its breath.

In the 1970s, Richard Roundtree was John Shaft, Ron O’Neal was Superfly, Jim Kelly was Black Belt Jones, Fred Williamson was Black Caesar, and Jim Brown was Slaughter.  Whatever skills Jim Brown lacked as an actor, he made up for with sheer presence.  He commanded the screen.  Whether he was playing football on television or beating down the Mafia in the movies, no one could stop Jim Brown.  Slaughter is Brown at his toughest.  Rip Torn is the perfect villain, screaming out racial slurs even when Slaughter has him trapped in an overturned car.   Jim Brown has said that, of all the films he has made, Slaughter is one of his three favorites.  (The other two were The Dirty Dozen and Mars Attacks!)

Slaughter‘s cool factor is increased by the presence of Stella Stevens, playing the role of Ann, Hoffo’s mistress.  It only takes one night with Slaughter for Ann to switch sides.  Nothing stops Slaughter.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Change of Habit (dir by William A. Graham)

(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take?  Some would say forever but, here at the Shattered Lens, we’re hoping that she might have it all done by August.  Anyway, she recorded the 1969 film Change of Habit off of Starz on March 20th!)

It’s Elvis vs. God for the heart of Mary Tyler Moore!

(Okay, so that may be a little bit glib on my part but, seriously, that pretty much sums up Change of Habit.)

Change of Habit opens with three nuns walking through New York City.  There’s the forgettable nun, Sister Barbara (Jane Elliott).  There’s the black, streetwise nun, Sister Irene (Barbara McNair).  And then there’s the idealistic and wholesome nun, Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore).  Because they’re nuns, even notoriously rude New Yorkers are nice to them.  They walk across a busy intersection and all of the cars stop for them.  A cop sees them jaywalking and just smiles and nods at them.  In case you were ever wondering why someone would become a nun, it’s because nuns always have the right-of-way and they don’t have to obey arbitrary laws.  It’s a good life.

The sisters are shopping and, as the opening credits roll, the three of them duck into a dressing room and change into contemporary civilian clothing.  Obsessively, the camera keeps zooming in on everyone’s bare legs.  You can literally hear the film’s producers telling all the boys in the audience, “This may be a G-rated Elvis film but that’s not going to stop us from implying nun nudity!”

It’s Sister Michelle’s idea that the nuns should wear contemporary clothing, the better to relate to the Godless youth of the 1960s.  Unfortunately, now that they’re dressed like everyone else, they have to actually obey traffic laws.  When they attempt to cross the street for a second time, cars honk at them and the cop yells at them for jaywalking.

Michelle, Irene, and Barbara get jobs working at a free clinic.  The clinic is run by John Carpenter (Elvis Presley).  Carpenter is looking for aspiring actresses to appear in a movie about a babysitter being stalked by a masked murderer on Halloween and … oh sorry.  Wrong John Carpenter.  This John Carpenter is a no-nonsense doctor who will stop at nothing to bring peace and good health to the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in New York!

That’s right.  It’s an Elvis film with a social conscience!

And that probably sounds like a joke but Change of Habit‘s heart is in the right place.  It’s intentions are good.  At least a few of the people involved in the film were probably trying to make the world a better place.  There’s a subplot involving an autistic child that, when you consider this film was made in 1969, is handled with unusual sensitivity.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that the rest of Change of Habit doesn’t feel totally and completely out-of-touch.  The entire film feels so dated that I imagine it probably even felt dated when it was initially released.  This is one of those films where the local black militants give Sister Irene a hard time about being a sell-out, just to eventually admit, during a block party, that maybe white folks aren’t so bad after all.  By the end of the movie, they’re even joking with the cops.  All that was needed was for Elvis to sing a song or two.  To be honest, there are times when Change of Habit feels like the 1969 version of Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial.

Of course, the majority of the film deals with Elvis falling in love with Mary Tyler Moore.  He doesn’t know that she’s a nun and, as she falls in love with him, she’s forced to make a difficult choice.  Does she follow God or does she follow Elvis?  Actually, the film ends before she officially makes that choice but there’s little doubt as to what she’s going to eventually do.  In his final non-concert film appearance, Elvis is totally miscast as a serious-minded doctor and, it must be said, he looked miserable throughout the entire film.  You get the feeling he’d rather be doing anything than starring in Change of Habit.  (Maybe he was already thinking about how much he wanted a special FBI badge.)  Mary Tyler Moore is a bit more believable as a nun.  Fortunately, both Moore and Elvis were likable performers and their likability makes Change of Habit, as ludicrous as it often is, far more watchable than it has any right to be.

In the end, Elvis may not have saved society but he did get to sing a gospel song or two.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing (dir by Richard Fleischer)

(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take?  Forever!  For instance, she recorded 1955’s The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing off of FXM on February 1st and has now gotten around to actually watching and reviewing it.)

The story of Evelyn Nesbit is an interesting one, even if it is now a largely forgotten one.

In 1901, Evelyn Nesbit was a showgirl in New York City.  While she always claimed that she was 16 at the time, there are some historians that think it more likely that she was only 14.  One night, the beautiful Evelyn was introduced to Stanford White.  At the time, White was 47 years old and the most successful and prominent architect in New York City.  White was also a notorious womanizer and Evelyn soon became his latest mistress.  He moved her into one of his many apartments.  Years later, when the details of their relationship became public knowledge, people were shocked to hear that Stanford White kept a red velvet swing in the apartment and that he enjoyed watching Evelyn swing back and forth.  They would be even more scandalized by the news that Stanford also had a “mirror room.”  As Evelyn would later testify, she “entered the room a virgin” but did not come out as one.

Though Evelyn occasionally claimed that she and Stanford were truly in love, she never married him.  (Indeed, Stanford White apparently never married anyone over the course of his life.)  Instead, she ended up meeting and marrying Harry K. Thaw.  Harry was the heir to a 40 million dollar fortune.  He also had a long history of mental illness.  When he learned that, before meeting him, Evelyn had lost her virginity to Stanford White, he was outraged.

(It’s debatable how well Stanford and Harry knew each other.  Some historians claim that they were barely acquainted.  Other accounts claim that Harry and Stanford were business rivals even before Evelyn Nesbit arrived in New York.)

In 1906, Harry and Evelyn ran into Stanford White at Madison Square Garden.  Harry promptly pulled out a pistol and, in front of hundreds of witnesses, shot Stanford dead.

Harry’s subsequent trial was reportedly the first to ever be described as being “the trial of the century.”  Because hundreds of people had seen Harry Thaw shoot Stanford White and the Thaw family was adamant about not publicizing Harry’s history of mental illness, Harry’s defense team attempted to make the trial about Stanford White.  The defense attempted to portray Stanford as being such a depraved predator that Harry really had no other option but to shoot him in cold blood.  Evelyn took the stand and testified to every single detail of her relationship with Stanford White.  The details appeared in every major newspaper in America.

In the end, Harry was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to the  Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  (Reportedly, due to his great wealth, he had the best room in the hospital.)  Meanwhile, Evelyn became one of America’s first reality stars.  Her notoriety led to her appearing in several silent films.  It’s a fascinating story, one that very much feels ahead of his time.  If Evelyn was a star in 1906, just imagine how famous she would be today.

The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is about Evelyn Nesbit and her relationships with both Stanford White and Harry Thaw.  It’s a shame that the film isn’t as interesting as the real life story.  Ray Milland plays Stanford White.  Farley Granger is Harry Thaw.  Joan Collins is Evelyn Nesbit.  They all give good performances, especially Farley Granger.  But the film itself is just so bland.  Perhaps because it was made in the 1950s, it leaves out the majority of the sordid details that made the story so fascinating to begin with.  For instance, the red velvet swing appears but, in this film, no time is spent in the mirror room.  This true life story is pure tabloid material but The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing is way too respectful for its own good.  By refusing to come down firmly on the side of Harry Thaw or Stanford White, the film feels shallow and a bit empty.  (All good melodramas — even fact-based ones — need a good villain.)  And poor Evelyn Nesbit!  In real life, she was a savvy self-promoter who knew exactly how to manipulate the press.  In this film, she’s just an innocent ingenue.  Considering the facts of the case, the film version is unforgivably dull.

So, I don’t recommend The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing but I do recommend Paula Uruburu’s fascinating 2008 biography, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the ‘It’ Girl, and the ‘Crime of the Century.’  It goes into all of the fascinating details that were left out of this film.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Sinister Minister (dir by Jose Montesinos)

(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR.  She’d probably be done already if she wasn’t trying to review every single movie that she watches.  Sometimes, it takes longer to write the review than to watch the movie.  Boo hoo.  Anyway, she recorded Sinister Minister off of Lifetime on May 28th.)

“Oh hell yeah!”

That’s what I shouted when Sinister Minister began and I saw the following: “The Asylum Presents…”

I’ve explained in the past why I love Asylum films but I will be more than happy to explain again.  After all, it’s possible that you may not have read my previous reviews and, anyway, I’ve got a word count to meet.  I love those three words — “The Asylum Presents” — because the Asylum specializes in making films that are pure entertainment.  There’s no pretension when it comes to the Asylum.  There’s no attempt to try to fool the audience into thinking that they’re seeing something more than they actually are.  There’s none of the silly BS that makes so many other films so tedious.  No.  The Asylum promises to entertain you and, usually, they keep that promise.

Take Sinister Minister for example.  First off, there’s the title.  Sinister Minister has got to be one of the most brilliant titles that I’ve ever seen.  You read that title and you know exactly what you’re getting.  It’s going to be a film about minister and he’s going to be sinister.  The only question is whether or not he’s going to be a man of God or if he’s going to be an official in some dreary socialist country in Europe.

In this case, he’s pretending to be a man of God.  DJ (Ryan Patrick Shanahan) is a charismatic dynamo on the pulpit, giving fiery sermons and encouraging people to read their bibles.  (I didn’t catch his denomination.  I’m going to assume that he a part of that all-purpose, nameless denomination that all television and movie protestants seem to be a part of.)  When we first meet DJ, he’s married but his wife promptly dies in an auto “accident.”  That frees him up to marry his mistress.

However, no sooner has DJ gotten remarried then he meets the recently divorced Trish (Nikki Howard).  DJ likes Trish and Trish likes DJ.  Less impressed is Trish’s teenage daughter, Siena (Angelica Briones).  Of course, it doesn’t matter because DJ’s married, right?  Well, that can be taken care of…

So, is it possible that DJ is just murdering one wife after another and now he’s planning on marrying Trish?  And, in order to do that, is he going to have to target everyone who might have reason to be suspicious of his intentions, including Siena?  Well, he wouldn’t be a sinister minister otherwise!

Anyway, Sinister Minister is one of those totally over the top melodramas that has just enough self-awareness to also be a lot of fun.  (It’s based on a true story but don’t let that scare you off.)  Ryan Patrick Shanahan brings the right mix of bad boy charisma and mustache twirling villainy to the role.  As always, The Asylum promises and enjoyable movie and it delivered.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Homer and Eddie (dir by Andrei Konchalovsky)

(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR.  It’s taking her such a long time that she’s running out of cutesy ways to talk about how long it’s taking.  She recorded this 1989 comedy off of Starz on May 10th.)

This is another strange one.

Homer and Eddie opens with Homer (James Belushi) standing on the corner of an isolated stretch of desert road.  He is hitchhiking.  When a car finally stops to pick him up, Homer is so excited!  He gets in the back seat, gives the two men in the front seat a really wide smile, and innocently asks them how they’re doing.

One of the men (played by director John Waters) holds up a gun and demands all of Homer’s money.  After Homer hands the money over, he is kicked out of the car.  As the car drives away, Homer pulls a few dollars out of his sock and loudly yells that he fooled them and that they didn’t get all of his money.

The car abruptly stops and, going in reverse, pulls back up to Homer.  Homer gives up his money and the car speeds off.

In short, Homer probably shouldn’t be hitchhiking on his own.  Homer, you see, was hit in the head by a baseball when he was younger.  He has the mind and the innocent outlook of a child.  He is cheerful, he is religious, and he is totally unprepared to deal with real world.

Fortunately, Homer won’t be alone for too long.  Homer comes across an apparently deserted car and, without money or a place to stay, he decides to use the car as shelter.  However, it turns out that the car isn’t as abandoned as it looks!  No, the car is being used by Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg).  Eddie stole the car when she escaped from a mental institution.  Why was Eddie in the mental institution?  She’s a paranoid schizophrenic and she occasionally kills people.  Eddie and Homer are soon taking a very strange road trip, heading up north so that Homer can see his dying father.

It’s a very disjointed film, one that switches tone from scene to scene.  The two stars seem to be acting in totally different movies.  Belushi gives a very broad performance, one that often crosses the line into pure goofiness.  Eddie, meanwhile, is continually and constantly full of rage.  You never know when she’s going to snap and kill someone.  I spent a good deal of the movie waiting for her to kill Homer.  Maybe that was the point but it’s still hard to laugh at scenes of Homer and Eddie waving at a school bus full of cheerleaders when you’re also waiting for Whoopi Goldberg to beat and dismember Jim Belushi.

Homer and Eddie can  summed up by one lengthy sequence.  Eddie takes Homer to a brothel so that he can lose his virginity.  While Homer is dancing around in his underwear, Eddie is at a convenience store, shooting the clerk (played by Pruitt Taylor Vince).  The clerk, who was perfectly nice to Eddie before getting shot, looks at his wound and feebly says, “Why did you do that?” before dying.

It’s a weird little movie.  Usually, I love weird moves but this one is too much of a mess for even me.  As I watched it, I couldn’t help but think of how much more interesting the movie would be if it was the child-like Homer killing people and schizophrenic Eddie trying to keep him calm.  On a positive note, this was decades before Whoopi Goldberg gave up her edginess to co-host The View and she gives shockingly good performance.  When Eddie loses control, she’s actually frightening.  But, unfortunately, the film itself just doesn’t work.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Laugh Killer Laugh (dir by Kamal Ahmed)

(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s taking a while but she’s definitely making some progress!  She recorded this 2015 thriller off of the El Rey network on May 9th!)

This is a strange one.

William Fosythe, character actor extraordinaire, plays Frank Stone.  Frank is a burglar who works for an infamous mobster named Tough Tony (Victor Colicchio).  As you can probably tell from his nickname, Tony’s tough but he still enjoys a good laugh.  Not Frank.  Frank never laughs.  He doesn’t even smile.  In a world of flamboyant and verbose gangsters, Frank is quiet and withdrawn.  He lives in a cramped apartment, withdrawn from the world.  At night, he is haunted by nightmares of his childhood.  He was raised in an orphanage where a sadistic headmaster (Tom Sizemore) regularly ordered his to never smile.  In the view of the headmaster, Frank had nothing to smile about and certainly no reason to ever laugh.

Then, Frank enrolls in a creative writing class.  His main reason for enrolling is that he’s falling in love with another student, Jackie (Bianca Hunter).  However, once he’s enrolled, Frank finally starts to express himself for the first time.  What the class doesn’t realize is that his dark and violent stories aren’t fiction.  Instead, Frank is just writing about his day-to-day life.  The class may be impressed but Tough Tony isn’t particularly happy that a bunch of strangers know all of his secrets.  Tough Tony’s solution is predictably brutal but he may be underestimating Frank, who has now discovered not only the joy of laughter but the joy of killing as well.

I have to admit that all of the Mafia stuff didn’t really interest me.  I’ve seen so many gangster movies that I could pretty much predict everything that was going to happen as far as Tough Tony was concerned.  Victor Colicchio did a good job and was properly loathsome in the role but, ultimately, he was just another self-amused gangster.

Far more interesting to me were the parts of the movie that involved the creative writing class.  I’ve taken a few creative writing classes and this film perfectly captured the experience.  I recognized almost everyone in that class.  There was the lonely woman who wrote stories that presented her as being both a seductive temptress and an innocent victim of a selfish lover.  There was the guy who, having read too much Raymond Carver, seemed to be obsessed with the idea that he could turn the mundane details of his everyday life into great art.  Even Frank Stone was a familiar type to me.  In every class, there’s always one guy (and it’s almost always a guy) whose writing is so nihilistic that you praise it because you’re scared he might kill you otherwise.  And then there was Ackley (Kevin Corrigan), the asshole who never read anything but showed up for every class so that he could tell everyone else that their work sucked.  Every class has an Ackley.  Even the supportive but somewhat wimpy instructor (played by Robert McNaughton) felt true to life.

Laugh Killer Laugh is an odd and uneven little movie and definitely not for everyone.  There are some serious pacing problems and some of the supporting performances aren’t as strong as you might want.  (Tom Sizemore, however, will scare the Hell out of you.)  That said, William Forsythe gives a wonderfully strange and ultimately sympathetic performance as Frank.  The film makes perfect use of Forsythe’s off-center persona and it’s almost worth watching just for that.