Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Bishop's Wife (1947)

Director: Henry Koster                                      Writers: Robert Sherwood & Leonardo Bercovici
Film Score: Hugo Friedhofer                            Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Elsa Lanchester and James Gleason

Though Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life failed to draw post-war moviegoers to the theatre in numbers great enough to make a profit, producer Samuel Goldwyn nevertheless decided to create his own holiday supernatural classic the following year—though he was actually inspired by the success of MGM’s The Bells of St. Mary's which, incidentally, was playing at the Bijou Theater in Capra’s film. And while The Bishop’s Wife is a far lesser film, to be sure, it does have some endearing moments. The story comes from the 1928 novel of the same title by Robert Nathan. Goldwyn originally brought in William A. Seiter to direct. Seiter was a journeyman director but had done no major films, and his absence of directorial flair eventually caused Goldwyn to scrap what he had done and begin over with Henry Koster who, while his best films were still ahead of him, was simply a much better director. The actors Goldwyn originally hired also changed, as David Niven had originally been cast as the angel, while Dana Andrews was set to be the bishop and Teresa Wright his wife. But when Wright became pregnant she had to bow out, and then Andrews left shortly after when Goldwyn was forced to lend him to RKO in order to get Loretta Young. Finally, the producer brought in Cary Grant to play the bishop, but when he was unhappy with the script he decided to play the angel and Niven was moved over to that part. Though it could have worked the other way, this was definitely the right choice as it is firmly Grant’s picture and he is charming throughout.

The film begins at night up above the city, with the lights below reminiscent of the stars that open Capra’s film. Once on the streets a group of young carolers singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is observed by Cary Grant, who smiles wryly and then moves on down the street. Grant is set apart from the rest of the men on the sidewalks because he isn’t wearing a hat. He helps a blind man across the street, fearless as cars screech to a halt in front of them while they walk together. He enjoys the delight on the faces of the children looking through the store windows, and then saves a baby carriage from rolling into the busy street. It’s clear from the opening that Grant is not a normal person. Then he spies Loretta Young, looking longingly at a hat in the window of a dress shop—shades of Mrs. Miniver. While purchasing a Christmas tree, Young meets Monty Wolley as the atheistic college professor who buys a tree every year because it reminds him of his childhood. It comes out in conversation that her husband, David Niven, is a bishop who is under a lot of stress trying to raise money to build a new cathedral—and neglecting Young in the process. The plot revolves around Niven’s obsession with his new church, having abandoned his old neighborhood parish and curried favor with his richest parishioners in order to get his cathedral built. It has caused a rift in his marriage and home life, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Grant’s role as the angel is to be the answer to Niven’s prayers. His biggest donor will only agree to give him the money if he builds the church as a temple to her late husband, and he calls on God for help. Grant tells Niven who he is, and what his mission is, but won’t let him tell Young or anyone else. What Grant decides to do is essentially distract Young by paying her all the attention to her that her husband should, which keeps her from taking out her displeasure on Niven, and at the same time making Niven jealous. The story itself is rather predictable, and at times quite pedestrian, especially where religion is concerned. In fact, many moviegoers stayed away from the film because they thought it would be just about religion, causing Goldwyn to change the name of the film to Cary and the Bishop’s Wife at some theaters. In truth, the very religious nature of the film is off-putting at times, but since it is such an obvious part of the story it’s to be expected, and the whole picture has a heart-warming quality in spite of it. The one exception is the character of the professor, who by the end of the film has been turned away from his atheism and is apparently prepared to embrace his lost religion. It’s a bit underhanded in its assumption of the rightness of religion, but other than that there’s little to complain about. The film was remade in 1996 by Penny Marshall and called The Preacher’s Wife, starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston.

One of the fascinating aspects of the film is how much it draws on previous supernatural films, especially in the casting. First of these is Monty Wolley, the professor, who with his clipped white beard actually looks a bit like Edmund Gwen from Miracle on 34th Street. Next is the maid, Elsa Lanchester, who played Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein as well as the “Bride” herself. Then there is cab driver James Gleason, who is probably best known for his iconic performance in the supernatural comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan. But the most blatant attempts to capitalize on It’s A Wonderful Life are the couple’s daughter Debby, played by Karolyn Grimes who was also Zuzu Baily in that film, and the appearance of Robert J. Anderson, who was literally unforgettable as the young George Baily in Capra’s film. Not only was Grant unhappy with the screenplay, but Goldwyn was as well, and brought in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett to do an uncredited rewrite over the weekend before Henry Koster began filming his version. Ultimately, in spite of the turmoil, the film was a success both financially and artistically, though while it was nominated for several Academy Awards, like Wonderful Life, it only took home one technical award. Though The Bishop’s Wife is not great cinema, it is a charming film that deserves a viewing every Christmas season along with Capra’s masterpiece.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Sex Weather (2018)

Director: Jon Garcia                                          Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Mike Sempert                                Cinematography: Jon Garcia
Starring: Al’Jaleel McGhee, Amber Stonebraker, Alan Burrell & Marty Bannon Beaudet

Jon Garcia is back. Not that he ever stopped making films, but his latest project, Sex Weather, finds Garcia embracing the vital element at the core of all of his films to the exclusion of everything else: the love between people. When that is combined with the confidence of a filmmaker who is fearless in putting on the screen a vision that refuses to be compromised by the cinematic fashions of the day, truly amazing things are able to happen. In his first film, Tandem Hearts, Garcia has a scene that takes place in a bar between a male and female couple and a pair of musicians. He sets up the scene with an establishing shot of the bar, but spends the rest of the scene cutting between faces. Because of that the emphasis of the scene moves away from the setting to focus exclusively on the characters. In Sex Weather he has taken that same idea and made it the focal point for an entire film. While the premise of the film seems far from original, a typical one-night-stand, morning-after love story, Garcia manages to avoid all of the clichés and defies expectations at nearly every turn to create a unique cinematic experience that, while familiar in context, is anything but predictable.

The opening credits begin on an establishing shot at dawn of the Freemont Bridge in Portland, Oregon. It first appears to have been done with a crane, but as the camera continues rising it soon it becomes apparent that this is a drone shot—the sort of thing that used to be done with a helicopter, and something Garcia experimented with in his previous film, The Falls: Covenant of Grace, but is used to a much more purposeful effect here. Finally the credits end on the feet of Al’Jaleel McGhee and Amber Stonebraker as they poke out from beneath the sheets of the bed in her apartment. The first of Garcia’s unpredictable moments comes when Stonebraker gets out of bed to make a secretive phone call in the bathroom—preceded by a shot of her and another man in a photo, and ending with a painful declaration of “I love you” before she hangs up and hangs her head. This is typically something most films would reveal later in the story, and while there is more to it here than first meets the eye, there’s also a sense that Garcia has no interest in those kinds of cinematic tropes. Which doesn’t mean it’s not important to the story. Garcia’s mastery of the cinematic art form is such that it often doesn’t reveal itself until a film is over—and sometimes not until after a second viewing. His films are much more like novels in that respect. The reality is the phone call is incredibly important. In fact, it’s the center around which the entire film revolves . . . it’s just not important yet, and it’s that kind of patience that is the hallmark of Garcia’s best work.

When Stonebraker returns to bed McGhee wakes up and heads to the bathroom himself. Afterward he looks around the apartment, at her latest script and her awards for acting, and then they have the inevitable awkward confrontation. One of the expectations for a comedy or drama like this one is the predictable conflict between two people who have had sex but don’t really know each other. In most of these stories it is the centerpiece of the film, but Garcia is happy to get it out of the way early and get on to what really matters. McGhee can’t find his phone, and has Stonebraker call the Lyft driver to see if he left it in the car. Then, with time on their hands while they wait for the driver to return her text . . . they start talking. And the thing that becomes apparent almost immediately is the quality of that talking. Al’Jaleel “A.J.” McGhee is a phenomenal actor, and his co-star, Amber Stonebraker, is nearly his equal. Because of that it’s powerfully clear from the outset that this is no indie production populated by local dinner theater actors. Rather than characters, McGhee and Stonebreaker actually become people. They are alternately funny and serious, concerned and dismissive, naked and partially clothed, and beneath it all emerges the conviction that their sexual encounter the night before was no accident. Their compassion for each other—rather than passion—becomes far more important than their differences.

The dialogue ebbs and flows quite naturally, and both actors are visually compelling on the screen. But because the screenplay is so highly autobiographical, it is McGhee who is the most startlingly original in his characterization. When Stonebraker expresses disappointment at the quality of McGhee’s lovemaking she says she thought it would be different because of their history together—McGhee is an independent filmmaker and she had worked on one of his films, then they reconnected at the premier of his most recent picture the night before. When she says she had certain expectations about him, he immediately fires back about her, “Well, so did I.” Even more endearing is when he says the same thing after Stonebraker chides him for not trying hard enough with his previous girlfriend—“You know, women like to be pursued”—and he responds with, “Well, so do I, right?” It shakes viewers from their complacency and puts them in the position of Stonebreaker, seeing McGhee as an individual rather than a composite of all the negative expectations women have of men. Eventually the two come up with rules for the bed, one being that they can’t leave the bed all day. Their self-imposed isolation in the apartment and on the bed is beautifully symbolized by the frequent juxtaposition of the drone shots that float effortlessly over the rooftops of the neighborhood, a different kind of isolation but one that matches their separation from the rest of the world.

One of the major challenges of making a film this intimate, shooting on a set that barely ventures out beyond the confines of a queen-size mattress, is how to make it interesting visually. Shot selection and editing, in that regard, are crucial in order to keep the audience from feeling as if they are seeing the same shots over and over again. To that end editor Zach Carter is to be commended. A long-time collaborator of Garcia’s he has taken Garcia’s wide array of camera angles and woven them together in a way that feels fresh and yet never loses sight of the fact that the actors are at the center of the story. As a cinematographer Garcia indulges more than ever his penchant for pulling focus, but it really works in this context. It’s the same effect one experiences in bed with a lover, so close to the other person’s face that it’s impossible to focus. The subdued film score by Mike Sempert is also supportive in the way he reflects the nature of the visuals, but little more. Garcia has scored large chunks of his previous films and, though it seems just one more responsibility to ask from an artist who already takes on nearly every task in his projects, one has the profound desire to see the director at some point make the commitment to score an entire film with his own music.

It’s difficult to resist giving the ending away, because that is the most remarkable part of Garcia’s story. It’s not until the very end of the film that everything finally makes sense, and Garcia’s purpose suddenly washes over the viewer to reveal the true nature of what this experience together has meant for these two people. Garcia’s film isn’t perfect, but that isn’t the point, any more than it is to expect people to be perfect. But in spite of people’s flaws, everyone carries around isolated perfections within them. In fact, it is ultimately those perfections that we see when we fall in love and, ironically, what we initially perceived of as flaws can become some of the most endearing qualities of the person we fall in love with. Garcia’s latest is just that kind of film. There is something about it that resonates deep inside, and so we find ourselves compelled to take it home with us. But don’t be too quick to kick it out of bed the next morning and send it on its way. It has much more to tell than might first meet the eye. It has much more to teach if we just give it the chance. Only by opening up and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable will we reap the benefits to be had by this chance encounter. Sex Weather is a film you could love.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Films of Jon Garcia: 2009-2013

by Eric B. Olsen

The Films of Jon Garcia: 2009-2013 is about the zeal for making motion pictures that informs the kind of work that goes on in the Portland film community every day. Most of the people involved in these independent projects aren’t looking for money; they are looking for an artistic outlet that they can’t get anywhere else. And regardless of what winds up on the screen, there has to be a certain grudging praise for artists who are able to realize their visions despite all of the factors working against them. Portland writer-director Justin Koleszar put it this way: “To be honest, I really hope that people can, if nothing more, just appreciate that the film was done well. It’s not going to be everyone’s favorite, but I hope that they appreciate the performances of the actors and all the work that went into it, the entire cast and crew.” In the context of the kind of sacrifice that goes into an independent feature in terms of finances, time, and effort, it’s not an unreasonable request, and a sentiment that I’m sure every independent filmmaker shares.

After discovering Jon Garcia’s film The Falls in my local public library, I started watching other films that featured the two stars of Garcia’s films, Ben Farmer and Nick Ferrucci. It was then that I began to realize just how many terrific films had been made in Portland in the past decade, and had it not been for accidentally stumbling across The Falls I might never have know about them. They are independent films, to be sure, and certainly suffer from the severe budgeting restrictions that come with young filmmakers struggling to realize their vision. But one thing that can’t be restricted is artistic vision itself, which can be seen in the narrative quality of their work that sets it apart from much of the independent filmmaking happening in the rest of the country.

My initial concept for the book was an ambitious one. I had identified a dozen films by eight different directors and planned to spend the majority of the text dealing with my own analysis of the films, using the interview material to supplement and add dimension to that analysis. But it soon became clear that I was going to have to limit the scope of the project, and maybe do just a few films or directors at a time in multiple volumes. The choice for the first volume in the series was equally clear. Of all the directors I had interviewed, only one had made more than two films, and that was Jon Garcia. In fact, one of the things that became abundantly clear about him throughout my research is that he really is a filmmaker. His ability to write screenplays, his vision as a director, and his determination to continue to make films of high quality despite the necessity of low budgets, has set him apart from most other independent filmmakers.

The book itself is also somewhat unique in the way that it is written. I have read numerous books on film and the history of cinema over the years and while they deliver a lot of good information and historical background, I find most of them wanting in the way that they approach their material. What most of these books lack is a cohesive narrative in which all of the elements of a film—history, interview and analysis—occur simultaneously in the text. This is the kind of book about film that I’ve always wanted to read, so it’s the kind of book I decided to write. The book examines the first four films of Garcia’s career in order to provide a deeper understanding of works that transcend the limitations of independent filmmaking and to show how they have attained the status of art. Part oral history and part film analysis, it provides a detailed textual commentary on Tandem Hearts (2010), the director’s first film, The Falls (2011) and The Falls: Testament of Love (2013), his most well known films, and The Hours Till Daylight (2016). The Films of Jon Garcia: 2009-2013 takes an in-depth look at a writer-director who has earned a reputation as one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier filmmakers.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy                                     Writers: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Film Score: Howard Shore                                Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Leiv Schreiber

Spotlight takes its title from the team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe doing something almost unheard of today, spending months or even years on writing in-depth stories of substance and relevance to the community. In the case of the film, the thrust of the stories by The Globe was the Catholic Church’s complicity in covering up the molestation of young children that had been happening for decades. The priesthood had always been a source of controversy concerning inappropriate behavior, and for years various charges and court cases had been pursued against specific priests. What was unique was the way in which the church would simply transfer priests to another, unsuspecting, parish and the behavior would begin again. And so when the stories in 2001 finally exposed the whole, sordid affair, there was more of an understanding nod of the head than anything outright shocking. The film Sleepers, from 1996 had even dealt knowingly about the subject. What this film does, however, is put a human face on the crime. The initial contact that the team makes with a former victim, Neal Huff, is extraordinary in the way that he paints the priests as predators, grooming their victims and inflicting what he calls “spiritual abuse.”

The film begins with an episode from the 1960s; a parish priest has been brought in by the local police on charges of molestation. A young cop tells his desk sergeant that it’s going to be difficult to keep the media away from the arraignment, and the sergeant responds by saying, “What arraignment?” The scene then shifts to 2001, John Slattery as the managing editor of The Boston Globe, Michael Keaton heading up Spotlight, and a new senior editor of the paper, Leiv Schreiber, due in any time. Keaton’s team, which includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James works out of the basement, and when Schreiber arrives there’s concern that he will simply cut the department. But he’s read a column in the paper about a priest who was alleged to have molested kids in six different parishes over thirty years and a lawyer for some of the victims claims that the cardinal of Boston knew about it all that time and did nothing. The lawyer, Stanley Tucci, has absolutely no faith that the paper--or anyone else--is going to do anything that the community will interpret as an attack on the church. It’s not until Ruffalo, followed by the rest of the Spotlight team, shows their determination in exposing the abuse that he gets onboard to really help them. But there’s also another twist involving Michael Keaton and what he knew about the crimes while he was a new editor.

It’s a tremendously well-done film. Director Tom McCarthy, who had been acting since the late eighties and directing for the previous ten years, teamed up with Josh Singer, who had written for The West Wing, and attempted to focus on the journalistic side of the story rather than the crime. The duo won an Academy Award for their screenplay, as did the film for the best picture of 2015. For Michael Keaton, it was his second appearance in a row in an Oscar winning film after starring in Birdman the year before. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams both received nominations, as did McCarthy for his direction and Tom McArdle for editing. The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, though for most of the actors trying to do a Boston accent, it was somewhat less than convincing. It certainly wasn’t as on the nose as Good Will Hunting attempted to be--and was the better for it--but it was still odd. Keaton really anchors the movie as a veteran editor who not only has to strong-arm his friends to get verification, but also has his own sins to atone for. Ruffalo goes out on a limb here by playing a character who is not himself, and that feels odd as well. McAdams is probably the weakest of the bunch. The other standout is Stanley Tucci, who has been delivering stellar performances ever since he turned forty-five.

It’s not a flashy film, and doesn’t sport cutting edge cinematography like Birdman, or The Revenant from the same year--though the cinematographer for both those films, Emmanuel Lubezki, won the Oscar for the later. It plays more like All the President’s Men from 1976. The color palate on the film is also quite nice, with muted tones and an overcast feel to the exterior shots even though much of the story takes place during the summertime. The pacing is also quite nice, and McCarthy isn’t in a hurry to get his characters from one place to the next in the breathless way the Redford-Hoffman film unfolds. The reporters are diligent and willing to do the unglamorous job of research and writing in order to make a positive impact on the community. With the demise of the print media in recent years, however, it’s difficult to know if there will every be stories like that again that can have a major impact on society by rooting out institutionalized corruption. Newspapers can’t afford to keep reporters on staff who don’t earn their keep on a daily basis, and so the days of long-form investigative reporting may be over. Despite the subject matter, it’s not a sensationalized story and is rewarding even on repeated viewings. Spotlight may not be the most exciting film of the year, but then that’s never been what makes a great movie. And this is an exceptional one.

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.