Between the Lines,
and a few more films

#228  [archive]
DEC. 2, 2023

Between the Lines (1977)
Streaming free

This is a raucous but still mellow ensemble dramedy set at a Boston alt-weekly paper. Founded in the '60s, it was radical back then, but now it's the '70s and the paper has mellowed itself out of relevance. The staffers have aged along with the paper, out of their angry 20s and toward their mid-life crisis-filled 30's.

The film offers laughs and insights and arguments, lovers' quarrels, and office politics. Everyone hates the guy who sells ads for the paper, though it's never explained why.

With about a dozen characters, you get to know all of them as deeply as you know your co-workers — enough to like them on a good day, and once in a while want to sock 'em in the chin.

The men squabble with each other, fly into frustrated rages, and all of them itch to write the mediocre American novel. The women are frequently interrupted, sometimes scolded for speaking, and have to holler to be heard — blasé sexism which nobody seems to notice except me here in 2023. 

The movie's a good time, though, and feels authentic. Writer Fred Barron used to work at The Boston Phoenix (RIP), and director Joan Micklin Silver wrote for The Village Voice. They know the scruffy, hang-loose vibe of the place and era.

John Heard and Lindsay Crouse are nominally the stars, but screen time is spread around, with Stephen Collins, Jill Eikenberry, Jeff Goldblum, Marilu Henner, Doug Kenney, Bruno Kirby, Joe Morton, Michael J Pollard, Lane Smith, and Gwen Welles, all younger than you've ever seen them.

Goldblum steals most of his scenes as the paper's wacky rock critic, Collins is presciently creepy, and I wanted more of Pollard, but I never saw Pollard in anything where I didn't want more of him.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Blonde Death (1984)

This is a do-it-yourself straight-to-video movie, apparently filmed with a first-generation cassette camera. It's shot and lit and miked and written and directed by one James Robert Baker.

Amateur but amusing for a while, it's about a teenage girl who's been forced to move from the South to California with her leering father and wicked but prudish stepmother. Then the girl makes a new friend, an escaped killer breaks into the house, the girl and the killer fall in love, and ...

This is ever-so-slightly reminiscent of early John Waters, only without the gross-outs and perversions, and without the gross-outs and perversions all that remains is kinda shitty moviemaking. I enjoyed the first third, endured the second third, and clicked it off when I realized I'd lost all interest.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

Branded to Kill (1967)
Streaming free

Betcha didn't know that paid murderers have rankings, like college football.

Japan's #3 hit-man hails a cab, which just happens to be driven by a retired hit-man who wants to get back into the business. They team up, but get ambushed by #4, and soon #2 is on fire and running from another ambush.

Women and love are part of the story, with plenty of nudity in which you can't really see anything. Then eventually comes the big showdown with Japan's #1 hit-man. It's like a ticket to the playoffs!

This is all treated very seriously in the script but often camped to the extreme by the actors and direction, and it's fun for everyone who doesn't die. All the murders are elegantly choreographed, and the film is fantastically photographed. Seriously, every image in this film is suitable for framing, in wonderful widescreen black-and-white. 

John Woo must've seen this more times than I've seen Casablanca.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Killings at Outpost Zeta (1980)
Streaming free

A team of space explorers has been sent to investigate the disappearance of an earlier team of space explorers, who'd been sent to investigate the disappearance of an even-earlier team of space explorers, who'd been sent as 'pathfinders' to prep the planet Zeta for settlers. 

Seems to me, with three crews lost it's time to give up on planet Zeta, but the high command (cleverly called 'Star Fleet') has decided that Zeta is desperately needed as a base for further space exploration, so the movie follows this fourth team where several teams have gone before.

You expect bad acting in a low-budget effort like this, but the worst of it's during the setup. Once the mission is underway, the acting is not a problem — no Oscar nominees, but no giggles. The story is good, tightly explained by the script. The planet seems sufficiently otherworldly, with miles of rocks and steam, perhaps filmed on location at some national park. We never get a good look at the alien creatures, but they seem to be warthog-sized moving rocks, and that's kinda cool.

I spent about half the movie outside of it — watching but not really caring, but toward the end it drew me in, and my sphincter was not tightly but slightly clenched. The film achieves average for low-budget schlock, which is frustrating because it's not a lost cause. With a few tweaks this could've been good.

First, jettison the stupid title. Call it Outpost Zeta, or Fourth Time's the Charm.

Second, all these characters only spew facts and fear. Adding just a few jokes and clever asides would make them seem much more human.

Third, fire the set and costume designers, with their shared fetish for the colors red and white — the Star Fleet office, the space station, the spandex uniforms, even the planet, are all red and white (though occasionally they run low on red and substitute a dark orange). 

The biggest problem, though, is the music. As soon as the team reaches planet Zeta, a melody-free woozy quavering begins, weird sounds intended to remind you that outer space is weird. Imagine music without a theremin, but impersonating a theremin — and it never lets up.

Verdict: MAYBE.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Cellular (2004)
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Gods of Times Square (1999)
Frankenhooker (1990)
Greystoke (1984)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
The Lawyer (1970)
Not of This Earth (1957)
The Saint in New York (1938)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
The Shooting (1966)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Winter Soldier (1972)

... plus occasional 
schlock and surprises 

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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