Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Director: David Lynch                                         Writer: David Lynch
Film Score: Angelo Badalamenti                        Cinematography: Peter Deming
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theoroux and Melissa George

This film started as a television pilot from 1999 and it shows. Twin Peaks may have been a huge cult favorite in the early nineties but studio execs passed on this, and for good reason. The film, which David Lynch converted from a pilot to a feature, is essentially Blue Velvet in Hollywood, though not nearly as interesting and certainly not as unique as the idea was a decade and a half earlier. Mulholland Drive is still a prime example of Lynch’s aesthetic, which is no aesthetic at all really. Much of the pseudo-intellectual writing about his film feels a lot like the cult of Miles Davis in jazz, where writers go to great lengths to manufacture artistic genius where none exists. Ultimately Lynch is a mediocre independent filmmaker who has been pushed to the margins of the Hollywood mainstream. Leger Grindon once wrote that Blue Velvet was no more original than a Hardy Boys mystery. Given that, Mulholland Drive is no more original that a Nancy Drew Girls mystery. Probably the one area where Lynch’s films impress the most is in the area of sound design. There’s an emotional manipulation that goes on there that is far beyond simply film scoring. While some of the sound cues are musical, there’s a powerful sense that they stand alone on the soundtrack and enhance to a major degree the disturbing elements on the screen. But that’s about it.

The film opens with a limousine driving along Mulholland Drive at night. In the backseat is Lara Harring looking nervous. When the two men stop the car before they’re supposed to, one of them gets out to kill her. But just then a couple of cars full of joyriding teens come barreling around the corner, with one smashing into the limo and killing everyone . . . except Harring who walks off down the hill and sleeps in front of a house on Sunset Boulevard. Detective Robert Forster and his partner figure someone left the scene, but they don’t know who. Meanwhile Patrick Fischler goes to breakfast at a Denny’s knockoff with Michael Cook. He’s had a couple of nightmares about the place featuring Cook, but when he tries to confront his fear he’s literally frightened to death. It’s then that the innocent Naomi Watts comes to Hollywood to become a movie star, but when she goes inside to housesit at her aunt’s apartment, she finds the traumatized Harring who can’t remember who she is. When they look inside her purse all they find is a pile of money and a blue key. Somewhere else in town film director Justin Theroux has his film taken away from him by Dan Hedaya and friends, then finds his wife cheating on him with Billy Ray Cyrus and his bank accounts cleaned out. Elsewhere, Mark Pelligrino kills his friend for a valuable black book of phone numbers, then winds up having to kill two other people who discover his attempt to make it look like suicide. But things are just getting started.

Of course Lynch isn’t content to allow something as prosaic as narrative to inform his film and so much of the film’s idea of story is thrown out the window at the end when the viewer is taken down the rabbit hole--in this case inside a blue box. Does that make it artistic? Not really. Lynch has been silent about the “meaning” of the film, but that’s probably because there isn’t one. It’s the hallmark of an artist who has an eye for scenes and details but no genuine sense of narrative. David Bowie said once in an interview that he used to take the lines to songs and cut them into individual strips, throw them in the air, and assemble them in the order that he picked them up. That may work for a pop song, but not for a feature film. Though to be fair, the film isn’t quite that random. But in some ways it’s almost worse, promising something it can’t deliver. It’s as though Lynch made eighty percent of a film, then couldn’t think of how to end it, so he shot twenty percent of a different film and tacked it on the end. Naomi Watts does an impressive job in the lead role, with able support from Laura Harring. Justin Theroux doesn’t have much to do in the film, as is wasted at the end. Lots of recognizable faces appear in small roles, including Ann Miller, Lee Grant, James Karen, Robert Forster, Chad Everett and Michael Fairman, but again, to little effect. In the end, Mulholland Drive is an interesting four fifths of a film, but little else.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Executive Action (1973)

Director: David Miller                                         Writer: Dalton Trumbo
Film Score: Randy Edelman                              Cinematography: Robert Steadman
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer and Walter Brooke

Executive Action is a speculative film about one possible scenario of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The screenplay, written by Donald Trumbo, is based on the work of noted JFK researchers and authors Mark Lane and Donald Freed. The film begins with narration of text on the screen, to the effect that in one of President Johnson’s final interviews he felt the conclusions of the Warren Commission were incorrect, and that a conspiracy was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. Sixty years later, the specter looms that Johnson himself may, at the very least had knowledge of, and at worst, was complicit in the murder. There are two major aspects to the film as a whole that can be looked at independently. The first is the conspiracy itself, the people responsible and what their motives are. The second is the team that carries out the actual execution in Dallas. The conspiracy component is not entirely convincing, primarily because the associations of those involved are anonymous. They don’t even appear to be working at the behest of government agencies, which was probably because their wasn’t enough information at the time to risk accusing the CIA of murder. The assassination itself is the far more convincing part, triangulated fire that could have been carried out by any number of groups, ex-CIA, hired assassins working for the agency, or even mob hit men.

As the opening credits roll, black and white photos of the actors are shown amid other stills in order to give the film a documentary feel, as if they were a part of that specific past. The story begins at a large, suburban home. Inside, the problems with a potential Kennedy dynasty are being discussed for the benefit of Will Geer by Walter Brooke, Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. The suggestion is assassination by CIA and ex-clandestine forces operatives, setting up a fall guy and thus removing suspicion from the conspiracy. In the end Geer is unconvinced, but Lancaster seems very sure of himself. Meanwhile, rehearsals are underway in the Texas desert, while documentary footage of the real President Kennedy moves the timeline along, from June through November, 1963. Next, they choose Oswald as their patsy. Where the plan takes a turn for the unbelievable is when Ryan starts spouting to Lancaster about a Nazi-type program to reduce the population of Asians and Blacks in the world, as well as the U.S., in order to make room for whites. It’s easily the weakest part of the film. Geer keeps watching Kennedy’s televised speeches as the film goes along and Dallas, Texas is chosen as the site. It’s not until Will Geer sees that Kennedy is going to pull troops out of Vietnam that he calls Ryan and gives his blessing for the assassination.

Interestingly, the Zapruder film was not available yet to use in the production, as it had only been shown once on air, on a local Chicago television station in 1970. The film didn’t appear on network TV until 1975, two years after the film was produced. The footage of Kennedy and Connally being shot was thus recreated, and there are significant deviations from what actually happened. Nevertheless, with the exception of the bullet that hit Kennedy in the throat and the one that missed, the rest of the shots seem fairly accurate, especially having a separate shot hit Connally. Robert Ryan is clearly the leader of the conspiracy, the moneyman and controlling force. Burt Lancaster works for him and is the operations manager, organizing the teams and giving them their instructions. But Will Geer is ultimately the man in charge, and it’s not until he gives the go ahead that the team proceeds with the assassination. Other recognizable faces are Ed Lauter and Dick Miller as part of the primary execution team, and John Anderson, the car dealer from Hitchcock’s Psycho, as one of the conspirators. The film really has no suspense, or no drama. It’s a detached, clinical study of an assassination and, as such, it depends on what the viewer brings to the film as to how it will be received. Those looking for intrigue or suspense will be resoundingly disappointed. For those of a more historically minded bent, interested in how the film fits as a rejection of the Warren Commission only a decade after the assassination, Executive Action is worth taking a look.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Seven Days in May (1964)

Director: John Frankenheimer                           Writer: Rod Serling
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                              Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March and Ava Gardner

There’s an eerie sense of foreboding surrounding Seven Days in May, as President Kennedy himself was a strong believer in the plausibility of the original novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. The president had received an advanced copy and felt it an important piece of work that needed to be read by the public. But beyond that, he even lobbied John Frankenhiemer--who had directed the equally prescient Manchurian Candidate--to make a film of the book. Unfortunately, Kennedy would not live to see the film as he was assassinated by forces within the government, not unlike those in the film. Knebel and Bailey based their rogue general on the real-life general Edwin Walker, whom Kennedy had to fire because he was making outrageous comments to his troops and staff to the effect that highly visible Democrats--including former President Truman--were Communists. Walker continued his rants after he was relieved of command, and even attempted to run for governor of Texas. The two authors also interviewed Air Force general Curtis LeMay, who was an advocate of first-strike nuclear response to Soviet aggression. The great Rod Serling was given the job of translating the novel to the screen and does a tremendous job of creating suspense when the president and his advisors think an attempted coup is impossible.

The film opens in front of the White House, protesters picketing outside the gates. Some people are unhappy with the president, Fredric March, their signs even say they want to impeach him, or replace him with military man Burt Lancaster. Another group supports his treaty with the Russians as a move toward peace. The protesters are dead silent, until one shouts and a brawl ensues. Except for the clothing it’s such a precise prediction of the battles that would take place on that very spot a few years later over the Vietnam War it’s spooky. March is assisted by his chief of staff Martin Balsam, and visited in the oval office by senatorial lush Edmond O’Brien. The whole issue is over nuclear weapons and March believes in disarmament above all, even his future in politics. When general Burt Lancaster is brought before a Senate committee, he has no issue with calling March weak for not listening to his concerns about the treaty. Senator Whit Bissell seems to agree. His doubts are based on a general distrustfulness of the Russians. Kirk Douglas, as a Marine colonel, works for Lancaster and they have an exercise planned for the weekend that they’re not going to tell the senators about. But when Douglas comes across a couple of things that don’t seem to be part of regular military operations, he gets suspicious.

At a party later Ava Gardner, who has been thrown over by Lancaster, makes a play for Douglas, but he takes a rain check. When Bissell makes a passing comment as he’s leaving that implies he knows about Sunday’s event, Douglas immediately goes out to see Lancaster. Sunday turns out to be a rehearsal for the complete evacuation of the government officials, but Lancaster won’t admit to Douglas that Bissell knows. Douglas, who has liberal leanings, doesn’t like what’s happening. Finally, he goes to March and tells him he believes there is going to be a military takeover on Sunday. John Frankenheimer was incredibly happy with the film, including the performances of his lead actors. Ironically, he had not wanted to work with Burt Lancaster because the two of them had a lot of conflict on their previous production, Birdman of Alcatraz. But Kirk Douglas assured the director that he would keep him in line. Ultimately, however, Frankenheimer was delighted with Lancaster’s performance and the two of them became good friends afterward while the director had a falling out with Douglas.

One of the great joys of the film is the choice of actors. Fredric March is magisterial, and it would be difficult to think of another actor at the time who could have matched the actor’s mix of honesty and folksiness while still commanding respect. Though Kirk Douglas apparently had to entice Lancaster by offering him the lead role of the general, Douglas’s part as the colonel is actually far more important in the film and he does an impressive job. Martin Balsam, George Macready, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien--who was nominated for an Oscar--are all perfectly cast and deliver tremendous performances. The real surprise, however, is the delightful presence of two other stars, John Houseman and Whit Bissell. Though he had been a major actor on stage since the thirties, this is only Houseman’s second appearance on film. It’s a small role, but he is very effective. As for Bissell, after having sunk to low-budget performances in teen exploitation horror films for AIP in the late fifties, his appearance in a major motion picture here is wonderful. AIP was usually the place Hollywood careers went to die, but here he is the equal of the other stars of the period. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith is fairly forgettable, but then that’s probably appropriate. Despite the numerous location shots, it’s a very intimate film. Seven Days in May is a tremendous film in its own right, but also a frightening reminding of the kind of forces at work even today that can undermine our democratic system of government.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Bullitt (1968)

Director: Peter Yates                                         Writers: Alan Trustman & Harry Kleiner
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                                   Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Starring: Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn and Simon Oakland

Some vital piece of the filmmaking art has been completely abandoned in the last forty years. It’s not obvious until you really take a look at films from the sixties and seventies and realize how much different they are and why. The thing that is missing from modern films is patience. Just one scene from Steve McQueen’s Bullitt will demonstrate. After McQueen’s witness has been killed in his hotel room, he orders the police on the scene to seal the room--to physically stand guard and not let anyone in. Then, it’s not until the next day, almost twenty-four hours later before he actually gets around to taking a look at the room. But that’s just the patience in the story. What is truly amazing is the scene itself, after he goes into the room. Director Peter Yates simply keeps his camera on McQueen’s face as he looks around. There are a few brief cutaways to the murder scene, but that’s hardly the point. The entire scene plays out on McQueen’s face, not the room itself. It’s difficult to imagine that we’ll see that kind of patience on film ever again. Even the chase scenes seem to unfold in a similar fashion, allowing the action itself to provide the excitement rather than the editing--and yet still winning an Academy Award for Frank Keller’s editing. For that reason alone, this would be a film worth watching. But with a terrific story and an impressive cast, there’s much more to recommend.

The film opens in Chicago, with Pat Renella making some kind of escape from an office building by using tear gas. Later, in San Francisco, he catches a cab driven by Robert Duvall, and holes up in a seedy hotel. The next morning Steve McQueen’s partner, Don Gordon, rousts him out of bed and the two detectives go to meet with district attorney Robert Vaughn. It turns out Renella is a mobster who has been skimming money and now wants to turn informant. Vaughn wants McQueen to protect him until the hearings begin on Monday. McQueen and Gordon work with another detective, Carl Reindel, and decide to switch off on eight-hour shifts, but before the first shift is over hit man Paul Genge bursts into the room, shooting Reindel in the leg and killing Renella. Georg Stanford Brown plays the surgeon who keeps Renella from dying, but only for a few hours. McQueen’s commanding officer, Simon Oakland, gives McQueen carte blanche to figure out who the hit men are. Meanwhile Vaughn blames the whole thing on McQueen, who can’t decide how complicit Vaughn is in what has happened. Genge, who is set on finishing the job, is nearly caught by McQueen in the hospital. Then later, when he decides to go after McQueen himself, the detective turns the tables on him in a car chase through the streets of San Francisco But the hit man turns out to be a dead end and McQueen must find another way to uncover the truth.

The story was based on the 1963 novel Mute Witness by the great Robert L. Fish, the author of Pursuit. Peter Yates had done primarily television work at that point in his career and worked closely with McQueen and his production company. Composer Lalo Schifrin’s distinctive jazz influenced score was not the first of its kind, having done something similar on The Liquidator three years earlier. He had also written the music for McQueen’s film The Cincinnati Kid the same year. McQueen’s performance is quite unique, in that he tends to have very little dialogue, keeping his thoughts to himself and letting his actions speak for him. Simon Oakland is also enjoyably restrained, years before he would become a caricature in Kolchak: The Night Stalker. A young Jacqueline Bisset is McQueen’s love interest, but it’s a small part and not very crucial to the plot. Of course the iconic scene in the film is the ten-minute car chase. McQueen is being tailed, which he realizes before it even starts, and he loses the tail quickly, then suddenly appears in the rearview mirror behind the hit men. It’s a nice moment. Schifrin’s music gradually builds along with the scene and overall it exudes a genuine sense of realism. But that was the intent with the entire film, real locations throughout rather than any studio work. The prominence of the city also led to a string of crime dramas set there, the most popular being the Dirty Harry series with Clint Eastwood. Ultimately Bullitt is an impressive piece of work for McQueen and everyone involved, and arguably the seminal work in pre-seventies police films.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Truck Turner (1974)

Director: Jonathan Kaplan                                Writers: Oscar Williams & Michael Allin
Film Score: Isaac Hayes                                   Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler
Starring: Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, Alan Weeks and Nichelle Nichols

After the massive success of his soundtrack to the film Shaft, Isaac Hayes was able to position himself as a movie star for a couple of years during the tail end of the Blaxploitation craze. But while certain among those films continue to be relevant as cinema today, Truck Turner isn’t one of them. This was the second of two films Hayes starred in, after appearing in Tough Guys the year before, and was intended to be the bottom half of a double-bill with Foxy Brown. And while the film is unable to rise above an execrable screenplay and some terrible acting, Hayes himself, along with the great Yaphet Kotto, manage to hold their own. The odd nature of the story—Hayes as a bounty hunter who never gets hassled by the police, even after killing half a dozen people—only makes sense in retrospect. The initial plan for the film was to have an aging star like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum play the lead, but the low-budget nature of what American International Pictures could produce kept even those stars away, so studio executive Larry Gordon made the decision to hire a black principal cast and have the screenplay rewritten accordingly.

The film opens on the streets of L.A., with Hayes’ impressive opening theme. It’s not the equal of Shaft, but it definitely has the composer’s often imitated and never equaled sound. Once inside Hayes’ apartment the phone begins to ring, and a slow, loving pan across the place reveals something on the order of an anti-Shaft, in the way that there are dirty dishes, empty food containers, and a general mess. His partner, Alan Weeks, is calling to say they have a job picking up bail jumper Don Megowan. After a run in with the guards on the Army base they finally convince officious major James Millhollan to release Megowan and Hayes goes mano a mano with him in a field after being taunted one too many times. After taking the prisoner to jail, the two men collect their pay from bail bondsman Sam Laws. Later, defense lawyer Dick Miller needs the two to pick up a dangerous pimp, Paul Harris, and so the first place Hayes and Weeks go is the beauty salon. According to Hayes, “If you want to find a rooster you got to check out the hens.” There he finds Harris’s woman Nichelle Nichols who, in spite of her fury, exposes Harris, all of which leads to a car chase and a shoot out. When Harris is killed, Nichols gathers all of the major criminals in town, including Harris’s enemy, Yaphet Kotto, and puts a contract out on Hayes. The last third of the film is Hayes having to kill or be killed as they all go after the money.

In terms of the acting Weeks is, well, week. He’s good looking on camera but tends to overact. The same goes for Nichols. But for all of them they are saddled with a profanity and n-word laden script that contains nothing close to subtlety. Hayes’ relationship in the film is with Annazette Chase, which could have been interesting but isn’t given enough time to go anywhere. Scatman Crothers makes an appearance as a retired pimp, Stan Shaw as a hood, and Eddie Smith as a dope dealer, but to little effect. If there is one element of the film that stands out, however, it’s Kotto’s death scene. It may be one of the best in all of cinema. The realism is so startling I’m tempted to say the film is worth getting just for this, but the presence of Kotto in the second half of the film as well as Hayes and his score are two more reasons. At the end of the scene comes the startling use of a body camera pointed up at Kotto’s face as he stumbles toward his car which, while not unique, is used so infrequently in twentieth century film that it draws attention to itself in a good way. Had Hayes’ score for Shaft not been such a monster hit, the Truck Turner score might have done incredibly well, but by then Stax was on its last legs and the score wasn’t quite as memorable. Ultimately, Truck Turner is not a good film. By this time Blaxploitation was on the way out and it shows. Bad acting and a horrible screenplay doomed it to be little more than a low-budged embarrassment. Watch it for Kotto and Hayes’s score, but don’t expect more.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

Director: Elliott Nugent                                      Writers: Edmund Beloin & Jack Rose
Film Score: Robert Emmett Dolan                    Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Starring: Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr.

My Favorite Brunette is a really nice piece of work from Bob Hope, with Dorothy Lamour in the title role. It has the feeling of a play on The Maltese Falcon at the beginning, especially with the San Francisco setting and the mysterious woman with a missing husband. The film also has a terrific comedy voiceover narrated by Hope. But even more fascinating, the film also presages North by Northwest in the middle section. Though the idea is one that goes back to Gaslight, and probably further, the particular way it’s done here seems incredibly similar to Hitchcock. The film is a follow up to My Favorite Blonde with Madeleine Carroll, a spoof of the spy genre. Director Elliott Nugent was a solid comedy director at Paramount who had worked with Hope before on a number of films, including The Cat and the Canary in 1939 and Nothing but the Truth two years later, both with Paulette Goddard. But he also had drama credentials and would go on to direct Alan Ladd in the first version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The film opens with Bob Hope on death row in San Quentin, and the wisecracks begin immediately: “This is the worst last meal I’ve ever had.” He claims the whole thing is a frame, so before he is executed the warden allows him to tell his story to the papers. He begins with his work as a private eye—except that he’s really a baby photographer. In the office next door is the real shamus, Alan Ladd, who leaves the hapless Hope in charge. Of course Dorothy Lamour comes in soon after and hires him to find her missing husband, while Peter Lorre spies on her through the keyhole. He goes out to Lamour’s mansion where the viewer leans Lorre is her butler. Turns out the husband is really her uncle, and the mansion is owned by Charles Dingle. But things aren’t as they seem when Dingle takes Hope in to meet the uncle, Frank Puglia, and psychiatrist John Hoyt, who tells Hope that Lamour is delusional and really is Puglia’s wife. It’s not until he sneaks around the house and sees the wheelchair bound Puglia up and walking around that he believes Lamour, but by then Lorre is on to him. Hope tries the police, but like something from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest from a decade later, Lorre pretends to be the gardener of the estate that the crooks are squatting in temporarily. The hunt for Lamour leads to a sanitarium where Lon Chaney Jr. as an orderly commits Hope. But this is just one more jam he accidentally gets his way out of as Hope and Lamour manage to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

Hope achieves something like perfection in his balance between physical and verbal comedy. When he learns the governor hasn’t commuted his death sentence, he says, “I’ll know who to vote for next time.” Then later, walking down the hall with Lamour—after he’s just been given a diamond ring to pawn for several thousand dollars—he can’t help sticking his finger into the change slot of the pay phone. The character parts are pretty typical for the genre, with Lorre playing the sneaky foreigner, and Chaney reprising his role as Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Hope even tells him at one point, “I’ll buy you a rabbit later.” There’s another in-joke reference to The Lost Weekend when Hope finds a bottle of champagne in the chandelier and says, “Ray Milland’s been here.” And the car chase scene is right out of Buster Keaton’s The General, with Hope getting turned around and instead of being chased winding up behind his pursuers. Other character stars like Reginald Denny, Charles Arnt, and Ann Doran keep the production values high during the rest of the hijinks. There’s even a cameo by Bing Crosby at the end.

But everything about the film is great. There’s a tremendous shot out the window as Lamour is leaving Hope’s building, looking directly down at her car. But as the car pulls out, instead of rotating the camera around as someone would their neck to keep the street running from the bottom to the top of the screen, cinematographer Lionel Lindon simply pivots the camera in place so that the street seems to move up on the screen from left to right. It’s an arresting effect made all the more impressive by its use in a comedy. The lighting is also excellent, with a lovely spider web shadow over Hope as he is given Dingle’s cover story about Lamour. Robert Emmett Dolan’s film score is pretty minimal, and therefore forgettable, but then Hope himself is the real draw and so it’s difficult to imagine a composer putting a lot of effort into the production. Both Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. were in the middle of severe career downturns, and so it’s difficult to watch. But it was a high-profile production and it’s equally clear onscreen that they were appreciative and enthusiastic about the opportunity. In the end, My Favorite Brunette is a classic comedy that is well worth seeking out, though the buyer should be aware that many poorly recorded public domain versions exists, so purchase wisely.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Man Behind the Gun (1953)

Director: Felix E. Feist                                      Writers: John Twist & Robert Buckner
Film Score: David Buttolph                               Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Starring: Randolph Scott, Patrice Wymore, Roy Roberts and Philip Carey

The Man Behind the Gun is definitely lesser Randolph Scott. Part of the reason is that he doesn’t play a cowboy, and the stage-bound sets don’t do him any favors either. But the real problem is a story that just isn’t that interesting. Robert Buckner had written some big-budget films for Warners in the 1940s but he only came up with the story, leaving mid-level writer John Twist to do the screenplay. Unfortunately the film really undermines Scott’s western persona, the honest cowboy who gets caught up in something ugly and has to save others or himself. Here he plays an undercover military man who is looking for trouble. And the killing he does is pretty mater of fact and comes a little to easily for comfort. When he is finally forced to reveal himself he turns into a stern taskmaster at the fort and is rather unlikable. The only thing that makes any sense is that the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of the John Ford--John Wayne vehicle She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in which Duke plays a cavalry officer. But the two films are light years apart. Director Felix E. Feist is not an artist, but he’s not a hack either. He spent most of his early career making short films at the studio and his later career in television. But he did make a couple of interesting films in the fifties, one the adaptation of the Curt Siodmak novel Donovan’s Brain, and the other the Kirk Douglas vehicle The Big Trees.

The film begins with Randolph Scott in San Francisco working undercover, as he gets off a boat to head south to Los Angeles. Before he does, he kills two men in the street and teams up with former soldiers Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr. The trip south is like a miniature version of John Ford’s Stagecoach, with senator Roy Roberts who wants all of California to be a state, rival senator Morris Ankrum who wants southern California to be a slave state, schoolmarm Patrice Wymore, villain Anthony Caruso, and Scott pretending to be a schoolmaster. When Caruso shows off his gun to everyone, Scott secretly takes out the bullets. Then Caruso tries to rob everyone aboard and Scott gets the drop on him. Once in L.A., he hands over the criminals to soldier Philip Carey, who puts them in jail. It turns out Ankrum is in control of the water rights and gouging everyone, but one night in the town’s big dance hall he’s shot dead. Scott tries to get information from the dance hall singer Lina Romay about who the man in charge of everything is, the murder of Ankrum, the illegal guns he found in the basement of the dance hall, the new owner of the water rights, but she learns that he is really an army Major and he’s forced to reveal himself. Scott believes that Carey is part of the conspiracy and at the same time he tries to woo his girl, Patrice Wymore. But the whole thing becomes more and more convoluted as the movie goes on, at the same time that Scott’s character becomes lest and less interesting.

The other major character in the film is Robert Cabal as real-life desperado Joaquin Murietta. He had come from Mexico to California in 1849, but it wasn’t long before he was killed by rangers four years later. In this film he’s a young kid working for Anthony Caruso and when Scott out foxes the villain on the stagecoach he lets Cabal go. From then on he works both sides of the fence, getting information for and giving protection to Scott. In terms of acting, no one really stands out. Roy Roberts is a familiar face in the years before he turned exclusively to television. But there are also moments when he looks a little too much like Scott and it can be confusing. Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr. acquit themselves well, but Philip Carey is pedestrian at best. The real find is Patrice Wymore, who is absolutely gorgeous. She shows some real grit at the end of the picture and one wishes she could have had more of an opportunity to display her talents. No one really has that chance because the cast is so big and the story so intricate that none of the actors has enough screen time to enable them to develop any anything close to character and wind up being more types than real people. Even Scott, because of the changing nature of his character, isn’t really consistent, and so the ending seems a bit forced. For fans of Randolph Scott, The Man Behind the Gun definitely has something to offer. For everybody else, there are hundreds of fifties westerns that are better than this.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Help! (1965)

Director: Richard Lester                                   Writers: Marc Behm & Charles Wood
Film Score: Ken Thorne                                   Cinematography: David Watkin
Starring: The Beatles, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron and Roy Kinnear

While the Beatles’ A Hard Day's Night was something of a pseudo documentary in black and white, Help! was a full-fledged motion picture in living color. Unfortunately, that was the only interesting thing about the film. Dick Lester, who had directed the earlier film, was given a bigger budget and the group wanted to spend every penny by going to Austria and the Caribbean, but where the film really fails is the screenplay. Marc Behn had been successful with the independent Cary Grant vehicle Charade two years earlier, while co-writer Charles Wood had only written for television to that point. And while Wood had a long and distinguished career in Britain, there wasn’t a lot he could do with this story. While the Beatles are the nominal stars of the film, they really don’t have a lot to do other than run around doing silly things. Everyone in the group admitted that they were stoned most of the time, and so that probably didn’t help to make them put a lot of effort into their performances. The rather thin story is simply an excuse for a series of gags of rather dubious quality and the nonsensical running around of the cast. The only part of the film that still holds up today are the music performances, and they are generally good. The one that has them goofing around in the snow is less so, but it’s easy to see why fans at the time were enamored of the film.

The film opens on a fictional far-Eastern temple, with Leo McKern about to make a human sacrifice. But he’s stopped when one of his acolytes, Eleanor Bron, sees that the victim isn’t wearing the sacrificial ring. As the worshipers begin looking for the ring it is suddenly seen on the hand of, who else but Ringo, as the opening credits begin with the Beatles singing the title song. The video is in black and white, and halfway through the reason becomes clear as darts begin to hit the drummer. McKern is watching them on film and throwing the darts, then decides to go after the ring. In London the four lads are seen going into adjoining houses, with no walls between inside. And that’s when the comedy, if it can even be called that, ensues. Lennon reads his own book on his sunken bed, Harrison has grass in his bedroom complete with a gardener, Starr has vending machines along one wall, and McCartney is seen playing a Wurlitzer organ that comes up out of the floor. All the while McKern and Bron try all kinds of convoluted ways to get the ring off of Ringo’s finger. Mercifully, the group plays another song to stop the lame attempt humor that permeates the film. While McKern and company make several attempts to chop off Ringo’s hand to get the ring, for some unknown reason Bron stops them. At the same time, scientists Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti are after it too. Finally the group learns that if he can’t get the ring off, he’ll have to be sacrificed, which leads to chases through the Alps and the Bahamas.

The film was generally given positive reviews at the time, and there is a certain type of British comedy film of the period that the film can be considered part of. The original version of The Italian Job is one example of this kind of comedy, which doesn’t really translate to modern audiences at all. Part of the idea for the film sends up the James Bond films, which United Artists owned, but much of the action failed to capitalize on that connection. Leo McKern does about as well as could have been done with the script he was given. Eleanor Bron, who was supposed to be the Bond girl of the film, was great to look at but her motivation was a bit muddy. Even after she had saved her sister from sacrifice she continues to rescue Ringo. And as nonsensical as McKern and his followers are, Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti make an already confusing plot even more incomprehensible. But then, that was probably the point. Contemporary audiences seemed to enjoy simply seeing the Fab Four in anything. And the film was highly influential, as it provided the template for the Monkees television show and their subsequent success in the U.S. Ultimately, robbing the Beatles of their true persona--the primary element that made A Hard Day's Night such a successful film in its own right--is what really nullifies whatever potential Help! had as a film. As a piece of Beatles paraphernalia it’s actually quite endearing. As a piece of art, however, it fails miserably.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Altered States (1980)

Director: Ken Russell                                        Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
Film Score: John Corigliano                             Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth
Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid

Though Altered States was released in 1980, it is very much steeped in a mid-seventies ethos. One only has two look at two Blair Brown films to see the monumental difference. Everything about this film feels as if it was produced in 1973, from the special effects and lighting to the film stock and the direction. Yet her very next film, Continental Divide with John Belushi, feels as if it could have been made in 1990. But perhaps that is the point. The film begins in 1967, and deals with the kind of exploration of consciousness that began with people like Timothy Leary and Carlos Castaneda. In the film William Hurt plays a psychologist studying schizophrenia, and at the same time he is doing studies on his own with a sensory depravation tank to study altered states of consciousness on volunteer students and eventually himself. Bob Balaban plays his research assistant, and Blair Brown is an anthropology doctoral student who falls in bed and in love with him. Hurt’s interest in his studies center on religion and religious symbolism in human consciousness, and some of his hallucinations are about his dead father and his rejection of religion. Before she goes off for a summer of fieldwork in Africa Brown pressures him to marry her as they will both be teaching at Harvard in the coming fall. Hurt, who is strange by all accounts, agrees.

Flash forward seven years and the couple has two kids and are about to divorce. His latest theory is that the atoms that make up the human brain are as old as the planet and therefore are the repository of millions of years of memory, and that somehow religious experience was born of those memories. He heads to Mexico to see if he can find a way into those pre-historical memories to hopefully find a purpose to life that religion can’t answer and never could have. Thaao Penghlis, who makes one of his few film appearances from before he became completely subsumed by daytime television, is his guide. Once there he takes a native drug and hallucinates again, and though disappointed, takes it back with him to Boston. Balaban worries that the drug is building up in his system, in his brain, and tries to get their mutual friend, psychiatrist Charles Haid, to help him stop his experiments. But they continue, and the crux of the film turns on Hurt’s belief that he is actually reverting physically to an earlier state of human existence when he is in the tank, and then actually does. That’s by far the most interesting part of the film, as it then changes from a psychotropic hallucination picture to a pseudo-werewolf film. The special effects, by makeup artist Rick Baker, in that part of the film are fantastic, far better than the hallucination sequences in the rest of it.

Surprisingly, the weakest part of the film is the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, who won several Oscars for his screenwriting. Ultimately, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense and seems more self-indulgent than entertaining. Apparently director Ken Russell sort of hijacked the production and kept the writer off the set, but it’s difficult to believe that even had Chayefsky achieved what he wanted to with the picture that it would have been any better. Sci-fi fans have embraced it over the years for it’s 2001-like visual sequences, but again, those seem really just and excuse for trying out visual effects rather than anything that has to do with narrative. The film was nominated for a couple of Oscars, for sound and the score but didn’t win. A few familiar character actors appear in bit parts, John Larrouquette as an x-ray tech, and George Gaynes as a radiologist, and Drew Barrymore as one of Hurt and Brown’s young daughters in her film debut. In the end the philosophical nature of the story simply doesn’t translate to the screen, while the more impressive physical regression isn’t explored in any kind of satisfying detail, leaving the viewer with little to really take away from the experience. As a result, Altered States is little more than a cinematic curiosity.

The Sting (1973)

Director: George Roy Hill                                  Writer: David S. Ward
Film Score: Marvin Hamlish, Scott Joplin         Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw and Charles Durning

The Sting is, quite simply, one of the greatest films of all time. Everything works in the picture, from the acting to the story to the photography to the music. Even the costumes in the picture were designed by the great Edith Head. This is one time when a film’s Academy Award for best picture is unarguable. One of the more creative and entertaining aspects of the film is that not only are the characters being swindled on the screen, but the audience continually finds themselves fooled as well. The effect is utterly delightful. The film opens with a sepia toned Universal logo from 1936, the time period in which the film is set. Behind the opening credits, beautiful Norman Rockwell type paintings that will also introduce each act of the film, is the unmistakable piano music of Scott Joplin. It’s difficult to imagine a time when “The Entertainer” wasn’t immediately recognizable, but Joplin’s ragtime music had been mostly forgotten when Marvin Hamlish decided it would the perfect accompaniment to the story even though it’s from a different time period. As the music speeds up and adds instruments the principal cast is shown in scenes from the film. As the rest of the credits finish, over a scene from a painting of the Depression, suddenly the painting comes to life in Joliet, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.

James Sloyan is a money runner for the mob. After picking up a payment he runs into Robert Earl Jones being attacked in an alley. Robert Redford shows up and the two help him chase away mugger Jack Kehoe. But Jones can’t walk and he needs to deliver some money. Sloyan volunteers and Redford shows him where to hide it in his pants, but tells him he should hide all his money. When Sloyan rounds the corner with the cash he plans on keeping it, but it’s not until he’s in a cab that he realizes it’s his money that’s been stolen. Later, Redford takes his girl out that night and blows all of his share gambling. Mob boss Robert Shaw learns about the theft and orders Jones and Redford’s murder. When Redford learns from vice cop Charles Durning that the money they stole was mob money, he tries to warn Jones but he gets there too late and his partner is already dead. So Redford seeks out Paul Newman, a big-time con artist, to help him take down Shaw to get revenge for Jones’ death. He’s holed up at a brothel run by Eileen Brennan, and is aided by inside men Ray Walston, Harold Gould and John Heffernan. Through all the planning Redford is on the lookout for Shaw’s men, and Durning is on his tail too. They decide to get in on a rigged poker game that Shaw plays on the train from New York to Chicago, then get him caught up in a rigged horse racing scheme that he won’t be able to resist because he wants so badly to get even with Newman who humiliated him during the poker game.

Of course the bare-bones plot is just the beginning, there is also an entire sub-plot con--actually two--going on at the same time that catch the audience up and fool them. In fact, David Ward’s screenplay began as a story of confidence men and the original idea for the project had him directing. But some time later George Roy Hill became attached to it, and having directed the two stars together five years earlier in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get them both onboard. He did two weeks of rehearsal with the entire cast, and it became clear to the actors that because of his meticulous nature and his enthusiasm, that it was going to be a great film. Nearly every aspect of the confidence men’s world had been researched by Ward and put into the screenplay, and Hill was able to bring that world to life on the screen. In addition to the four stars, the cast of character actors is particularly good. Ray Walston and Eileen Brennan, in particular, are marvelous, and actors like Harold Gould and Dana Elcar really rise above their television work to the benefit of the production. Composer and pianist Marvin Hamlish was actually criticized for the use of ragtime because it was from a different time period than the Depression, but Hill, a pianist himself, was enamored of it and Joplin’s music lifted the film to another level of artistry entirely.

The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and took home seven of them, all of them absolutely well deserved. In addition to best picture, David Ward won for his brilliant screenplay, which is where it all began. Obviously George Roy Hill won for best direction, expertly bringing all of the elements together on the screen in a cohesive whole. Marvin Hamlish won for his adaptation of Joplin’s music, which is as much a part of the success of the film as the actors or director. Edith Head won again--her last of eight Oscars--for the costume design, as did the team of Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne, the production designers who created and dressed the sets with historical accuracy. And finally William Reynolds won an award for editing, which was very good, especially in the unique transitions he used. One of the ironies of the film is that Robert Shaw wanted a lead actor credit, with his name beside Newman and Redford’s. If he hadn’t, it’s almost sure that he would have won a supporting actor Oscar as well. And yet because he strained the ligaments in his knee before shooting began, he had been willing to bow out of the role. But Hill decided to use the limp and it became part of his character. The Sting is one of the all-time great caper films in cinema history and one of Hollywood’s all-time great movies in any genre.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

U-571 (2000)

Director: Jonathan Mostow                              Writers: Jonathan Mostow & Sam Montgomery
Film Score: Richard Marvin                              Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and David Keith

Sixteen years after Wolfgang Peterson filmed the definitive World War Two German submarine picture in Das Boot, and a decade after the Cold War variation hit the screens with The Hunt for Red October, science-fiction writer-director Jonathan Mostow decided to take the genre in his own direction with U-571. This time the crew of a U.S. submarine is out to capture an Enigma machine from a disabled German U-Boat, with the goal of being able to break the Nazi code. The film took some criticism right off the bat because the British were primarily responsible for obtaining the Enigma machines. The U.S. didn’t capture one until 1944. On the opposite side, the scene showing the Germans killing survivors of the ship was another falsehood in that both Axis and Allied subs never took on prisoners, and the Germans only did that once. Nevertheless, audiences were receptive because it is an exciting film. The screenplay, by Mostow and fellow screenwriters Sam Montgomery and David Ayer, isn’t the most inventive and at times it even becomes cartoonish, but the cast is strong and they play it straight and for the most part it works. There’s a noticeable lack of production values on the scenes ashore, which gives it the look of a TV movie from the eighties, but that was probably to save money for the computer graphics that work well on the rest of the film at sea. The film even took home an Academy Award for best sound editing.

The film begins with text telling the reader that in 1942, the Allies were virtually helpless against German submarines as they hadn’t yet cracked the German U-Boat code. A Nazi sub captain Thomas Kretschmann takes aim at a ship and shoots a torpedo that breaks its back. But no sooner do they celebrate than they discover a destroyer bearing down on them from behind and depth charges force the damaged sub to the surface. In the U.S. an angry lieutenant Matthew McConaughey has been turned for his own sub command by captain Bill Paxton because he thinks he isn’t ready. Chief petty officer Harvey Keitel is aware of the situation but there’s nothing he can do. Orders have come down for some kind of secret operation in which the U.S. sub has been made to look like a German one, and men are put onboard who can speak and write in German. Marine major David Keith is there to lead the mission, to pose as a resupply boat sent to aid Kretshmann’s ship, and capture the enigma machine without the Germans knowing about it. They arrive there twelve hours ahead of the real ship, and the commando team takes two rafts over to the U-Boat. They kill the topside crew and manage to get inside. Keith finds the Enigma machine, and only loses a couple of men. They send the German prisoners over first, get everything on the rafts, light the explosives on the German sub and head for their own.

The twist comes when Paxton spots a torpedo heading for the U.S. sub and it explodes dead center. The U.S. ship and all the prisoners are gone, leaving the commando team to scramble first to keep the explosives from going off, and then prepare for the arrival of the real German sub. Suddenly McConaughey has his command. The one thing they have going for them in enemy waters is that they apparently are the enemy. But initially, the biggest threats come from within, first McConaughey’s inexperience, and second from the panic of seaman Erik Palladino--think Bill Paxton in Aliens. The acting is uneven overall, with some of the younger actors on the weak end. McConaughey is the center of the picture and carries it well. Both Paxton and Keith make a minimal impact, but Harvey Keitel was a good choice for McConaughey’s second. Thomas Kretschmann, in one of his earlier films, is exceptional, and one wishes he could have had more screen time. Other familiar faces are Jon Bon Jovi and Jake Weber, and Matthew Settle from Band of Brothers. How the film is received is going to depend on the viewer. Those seeking authenticity will definitely be disappointed and should steer clear. Those able to take it for what it is, a completely fictionalized version of actual events, will be able to enjoy it. And for those looking for action and little else, U-571 is a decent historical thrill ride.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Director: Brad Furman                                     Writer: John Romano
Film Score: Cliff Martinez                                Cinematography: Lukas Ettlin
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe and William H. Macy

This is one of those instances where a really great mystery novel transfers seamlessly to the screen. It also helps that it has a star-studded cast. The Lincoln Lawyer is a well-filmed, well-acted, well-written film that satisfies on nearly every level of viewing experience. And that’s not something that can often be said about a film. Director Brad Furman has an affinity for L.A., which comes through in his choice of projects, and while his other films have proved disappointing everything came together in this piece in a way that he had to be extremely happy with. The story is based on the novel by Michael Connelly, which was the first spin-off from his regular detective novels, and he was equally happy with the film. Though it didn’t receive rave reviews, audiences have been mostly positive. This was the second film in which Matthew McConaughey plays a lawyer, the first being John Grisham’s legal thriller A Time to Kill from 1996. In both films his character goes through a learning curve that is impressive to watch. And that’s what makes this film so great. The characterizations are particularly good and so the film doesn’t have to rely completely on plot. Plus, the cinematography is edgy without being off-putting, and the music uses a bit of rap without being intrusive.

The film opens with hot-shot lawyer Matthew McConaughey in his office: his vintage Lincoln Town Car driven by chauffer Laurence Mason. Unlike most lawyers who try to pretend different, he only cares about money. When court clerk John Leguizamo tells him about the rich Ryan Phillippe who has been arrested for assault on a prostitute, it’s easy money in the bank for McConaughey. On the other side of the aisle in the courthouse is the lawyer’s ex-wife, Marisa Tomei, and the two have a surprisingly good relationship, which stems from their mutual love for their daughter. He also has a crack investigator, William H. Macy, who thinks Phillippe is guilty but does a good job of trying to find the truth. Meanwhile cop Michael Paré has a grudge against McConaughey for getting killers out of prison on technicalities, as does assistant D.A. Josh Lucas who would like nothing better than to sandbag the hot shot and put him in his place. Of course Phillippe begins by lying to McConaughey, and eventually the lawyer sees a connection with a murder case in which he advised Michael Peña to plead guilty because he didn’t have a case. It doesn’t take long for McConaughey to realize that Phillippe hired him in order to have all of the evidence of the connection covered under attorney-client privilege, leaving him protected from the first murder. How McConaughey attempts to get justice for everyone involved, while Phillippe tries to do the opposite, is incredibly suspenseful.

Matthew McConaughey is simply marvelous, as both the slick hustler and later in the film when he becomes haunted by his own hubris. And Marisa Tomei is equally impressive as his gorgeous ex-wife. They play off each other brilliantly and have great onscreen chemistry. William H. Macy is also wonderful as the street-wise investigator, as is Josh Logan as the overconfident prosecutor who gets played by McConaughey. In addition to a great principal cast, there are a bunch of great supporting roles. Besides the delightful appearances of Michael Paré, John Leguizamo and Michael Peña, Brian Cranson plays a homicide detective that McConaughey can’t stand, while Bob Gunton plays Phillippe’s family lawyer. The great Shea Whigham puts in an appearance as a jailhouse snitch, a year into his impressive run on Boardwalk Empire, while Frances Fisher does a great job of replicating a 40s noir type mother. Nevertheless, even with all of that talent, it’s difficult to not to lay the success of the film on a terrific story, adapted by screenwriter John Romano, and some confident direction by Brad Furman. Because the majority of the film takes pace during the day and the humor in the story, it’s something of the flip side to a film like Collateral’s dark depiction of L.A. at night. Though perhaps not a great work of art, The Lincoln Lawyer is great cinema and well worth seeking out.