Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Or Reset Your Avatar
The Bachelor Party (1957)
Muddling Through On Love.
Paddy Chayevsky had an impeccable ear for the content and rhythm of working-class New York lingo. Not everybody has it. Chayevsky and a handful of others, like Budd Schulberg in "On The Waterfront." This film and "Marty" were made before Chayevsky took on bigger issues like hospitals and TV networks. And if the epiphany at the end results in a cop out, well -- that doesn't change the previous footage.
The milieu is one that was thoroughly familiar to me as a kid. All the white collar workers wore suits and ties; they rattled to their jobs on the subway; you could wander around the night-time streets without getting your throat cut; Tony Pastor's night club was still there; the "kookie bars" were there too, except that not ALL the bars had become "kookie" yet.
Don Murray is the audience proxy. He's a hard-working, ambitious office worker who attends night school at his own expense in order to become a CPA. He lives with his loving blond wife in one of those sterile high rises where the hallways probably smell of disinfectant. The problem is that his wife is now pregnant. It means additional expenses. She'll have to quit her job and he'll have to handle the hospital bills. Helen is excited at the prospect of motherhood. Well -- as excited as Helen ever gets. The actress, Patricia Smith, is not a volcano of emotion. Poor Don is gloomy. They're already living at the edge.
A friend at work, Philip Abbott, is to be married and Jack Warden, on the hedonistic treadmill, has organized a bachelor party for Abbott. A handful of Abbott's office mates gather at a bar to celebrate. There is a good deal of boozing and laughter. The oldest of the group, E. G. Marshall, stand up at the table and shouts that "the finest outfit in the U. S. Army is the 316th Infantry Division!" The band of miserable brothers wander the streets looking for action or -- something.
They gradually grow more miserable as they get drunker. On a jolting subway car, E. G. Marshall, in what may be the best performance of his career, bemoans the fact that he's forty-eight years old and his doctor just told him that he'll die of asthma if he doesn't move to Arizona. But how can he possibly move to Arizona? He has a kid in college and he's determined to pay his way through medical school. And what's he going to do in Arizona? Who wants a forty-eight year old book keeper? He quotes clumsily from MacBeth. "I read a book. I was a bright kid. I read a book. I was going to be the first Catholic president." It's a fine monologue, expertly done by Marshall. But then Chayevsky more or less ruins it by adding dumb and unnecessary lines. "Where did it all go? Where did it all go?" He stumbles drunkenly out onto a deserted subway platform to head home, leaving his jacket behind.
Paddy Chayevsky, an endearingly big, booming man, had had a tendency to spell things out at length. Here's Robert Duvall commenting on a TV program he'd just seen. "A disaster. The program was a disaster. An unmitigated disaster. The death knell." Later he describes his boss's attitude as "inflexible." "You say his attitude is inflexible?" another character asks. "Inflexible -- intractable -- and ADAMANTINE," Duvall replies.
I don't have time to go on with this. In the course of the night, the emotional problems of all of these white-collar cogs in the Kafkaesque office machine are explored. And they're explored convincingly and with sympathy. Except for the protagonist. Don Murray has been plagued by doubt. At one point, Helen asks him, as a kind of test, if they should get rid of the baby. She's expected something like, "Don't be silly." Instead, Murray pauses before replaying, "Isn't that dangerous?" She then does a good job of looking stricken. It's believable. What's not believable is the climactic scene in which Murray suddenly grabs his face, shouts, "If I don't see my wife right now I'll bust with love," or something like that, and runs off down the stairs to go home.
We assume he'll muddle through. They'll all muddle through. We all muddle through.
The Rats of Tobruk (1944)
It Has Its Moments.
A young Peter Finch is an English reporter studying the customs and language of the Australian outback. He becomes pals with two drovers, Grant Taylor and Chips Rafferty. About half an hour is spent on Taylor's on-and-off romance with Pauline Garrick as Kate Carmody. It's rather interesting. Taylor is reluctant to be involved with Garrick because she's "old school", meaning she represents the old colonial English. Moreover, he's given to moving around and painting the town red, while she wants to build a home. Some of these social fractures were to show up in Cleary's novel, "The Sundowners," roving drover vs. wife who wants to settle down, irresponsible males, resentment of the English. Even some of the names reappear: Bluey and Carmody.
In any case, they find themselves shipped off to war and wind up at Tobruk, which is under siege by the Nazis. They manage to hold on, though they're exhausted and lose some of their mates. (None of this is sentamentalized in the least.) Scenes of battle are few but reasonably convincing. A comic barber, George Wallace, has a prominent part but isn't very funny. Example: An Arab says something to Wallace and adds a term of respectful address, "Effendi." "No, no, you don't offend me!" I like it better when William Bendix did it in "Guadalcanal Diary." Three Japanese captives kneel on the ground before the Marines, chanting "Aragato" ("thank you"). Comments Bendix: "We ain't got no avocados." The acting is adequate. Chips Rafferty went on to become Hollywood's Australian, and of course Peter Finch won an Oscar for his role in "Network." Withall, it's not really a gripping movie. It's not "Gallipoli" or "Anzacs," but it gets the job done. It's a flag-waver about some heroic men who held on under the most adverse circumstances. The Germans finally took Tobruk but the Allies got it back.
Five Loose Women (1974)
After watching this cheap flick, there was one thing I was sure of. The protagonist's name -- Jabie Abercrombie -- is her real birth name. No doubt about it. I savor each syllable. It rings along my veins. And anyway, if you could make up a stage name, would you choose "Jabie Abercrombie"? As for any question about her figure, the mystery is solved in the first five seconds.
Innocent Abercrombie finds herself in the slams and four of her fellow inmates force her to accompany them when they escape. The cops are looking for them everywhere. A long segment follow them as they hustle through the brush of the scenic milieu of the California coast range. Aside from Abercrombie there are -- let me see -- a tough Negro, a Southern racist, a hard-as-nails lesbian, and a rather tall nonentity.
As they wobble through the bushes they first run into what seems like a Hippie love-in, in the middle of nowhere. They change their clothes and wobble on. Next, they reach a back road and flag down a Cadillac. They disable the driver, rape the half-conscious man, and steal his car. They gas up at an abandoned air strip tended by Ed Wood, who they knock unconscious. Then they run into five tough bikers. There is a brief fracas and the male Rat Pack is unconscious. Then they break into a farmhouse and take two hostages, and at that point they all seem to become lesbians and begin to molest the crippled farmer's wife. But why go on?
The direction is clumsy. If a pan happens to cross the camera's shadow, so what? The editor was on mushrooms. A conversation ("If we're going to get through this we'll have to bury the hatchet") is shown twice. As for the performances, nobody can act. You can act better than anyone in this film. I can act better -- HAVE acted better. My performance as a drunken gambler in the superb "Traxx" was lauded by at least one perceptive critic -- my mother.
Has anyone who claims that a movie is "so bad it's good" ever actually thought about that buzz phrase? A small budget is bound to be a hindrance to the story but the story itself doesn't need to be so eminently disposable. I doubt that a respectable movie like "Carnival of Souls" had much of a budget, or "The Little Fugitive." But they held a certain appeal for mature viewers whereas this seems designed for an audience of teen-aged kids at a drive-in, anxious to see bobbing bosoms before they get down to fogging up the windows.
City of Ghosts (2002)
Stick With The Five-Spice Chicken.
A large American population is devastated by a hurricane and are looking forward to getting their insurance. Alas, there is no insurance. Matt Damon, in a serious performance, is part of an insurance-company scam. They parked all the premiums in a Swiss bank and then ran off with the cash to Cambodia. Why Cambodia?, you ask -- and it's a sensible question. I don't know. There is actually nothing IN Cambodia except large statues overgrown with vines, monkeys, and dynamite grass. Maybe they don't have an extradition treaty, and that's important because the FBI is now on to Dillon and his two partners in crime, the always interesting Stellan Skarsgård and leader James Caan, giving a decent performance.
There are millions of dollars involved but there is also a problem. Caan, affable, back-patting, hasn't paid the other two off and is determined to sink the millions into a gambling casino surrounded by the mountainous blocks of a grand hotel. "It could be the new LAS VEGAS!", Caan exclaims about this white elephant deep in the jungle. He must never have seen Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo." The local situation is complicated, as it is in most third-world countries, and Dillon, who both wrote and directed, captures much of the squalor and corruption. Only occasionally does he try to do tricks with the photography -- a fast moving sky, a sun that rises out of the horizon like a UFO. Mostly he sticks to the usual conventions. Dillon -- a New York insurance salesman -- rescues Natasha McElhone from an abuser and manages to kick the crap out of a war horse of a street thug.
Nice local color. Plenty of statues and monkeys. But they aren't woven too well into the story. Natasha McElhone takes him to some historical site -- really BIG statues -- and there follows some kind of post-Hippie love-in, with people dancing around and waving flaming torches and drinking. "The Third Man" gave us the Mozart Cafe, the Prada, and the Cloaca Maxima but didn't go out of its way to do it.
It's confusing and clumsy but once in a while, almost by accident, it hits the right note. The first aerial shot we see of exotic Phnom Penh, the city is buried under a tawny cloud of smog. Portent of things to come.
Nothing Elementary About It.
This film has gotten some negative reviews but I'm not certain why. This is a later, Edwardian Holmes. The period detail seems precise enough. The telephone came into common use after it was installed in Buckingham Palace by Queen Victoria, which acted as a kind of placing on of hands. Men smoked cigarettes as well as pipes and cigars, although women didn't, unless they were strong-minded aristocrats or adventurous Americans. Fingerprinting was routine.
Of course Rupert Everett is neither Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, but at least he's tall. The character as written more or less fits Conan-Doyle's image except at the beginning, when Holmes insults Watson and tries to get rid of him. A bit too abrasive there. And Everett's default expression seems to be a sneer.
Nevertheless, all the most enjoyable aspects of the Holmes tales are present in this pastiche. True, the opening scene is a little gloomy. An opium den in London. A Chinese man is seen lighting the rolls of dope in the bowl of a pipe and the camera pans slowly up to a face we must correctly assume is Holmes'. The next scene is a shot of the Mudlarks out of Dickens, sloshing around in the black mud of the Thames, clouded by industrial smoke, and finding a woman's dead body amid the muck.
Thereafter the pattern becomes more familiar. Holmes shoots up once, but it's immediately after he reaches a dead end, is waiting for evidence to appear, and advises Watson that we must "possess our souls in patience." I liked it. The budget must have been sizable. The appointments are high end and the wardrobe is lavish. But the story, while simple enough in outline, involved some complicated goings on among the aristos and there were times when I couldn't attach the names to the correct figures. I had no trouble with Rachel Hurd-Wood as the thirteen-year-old kidnapee though. (Wow.) Helen McRory as the aristocrat-in-chief gives a masterful performance a s a cold, self-contained, half-mad bitch. And Michael Fassbender is outstanding as the icy footman.
Yes, it's a serial killer movie but it doesn't seem like one. Conan-Doyle could have written most of this. And the detective could have been no one but Holmes -- not Philo Vance or Nero Wolfe or Charlie Chan.
Air in the Great Patriotic War.
I'm not sure why it's sub-titled "MIG Force" because it's a very cursory description of the development of air power in the Soviet Union during World War II, which, in Russian, is known as The Great Patriotic War.
Russia began the war, after the Germans invaded in 1941, with a lot of obsolete airplanes that were quickly disposed of by the experienced pilots and superior technology of the Luftwaffe. The Germans advanced on three broad fronts, a regular Blitzkrieg, but they were to find out what Rommel found out in Africa and Patton found out in France. Rapid advances are just fine until your supply lines are stretched too thin, and then everything grinds to a halt.
The emphasis here is on the Russian attack airplane called the Sturmovik. The Nazi troops were supposed to have nicknamed it "Black Death" or some such nonsense. I can believe that Russian pilots called it "the Hunchback." The airplane itself was far from perfect. It was slow, uncomfortable, lacked elegance in its appearance, and early versions were vulnerable from behind. But like most Russian machines, it was simple, tough, and easy to maintain. And it was perfectly suited for the job with which it was tasked, strafing, low-level bombing, and tank busting. It bristled with powerful weapons. And the ventral surfaces of the cockpit and engines were made of steel armor. It wasn't armor plate. The parts themselves were made of thick steel. It was, in effect, a flying bathtub.
The political comments are few, and I suppose that's a good thing because they're mostly irrelevant. But it's ironic that Stalin began the war stupid and ended it clever. If an airplane designer, no matter how important, displeased Stalin, the designer went to jail. Two or three of the best aviation engineers in Russia worked from their jail.
In Good Company (2004)
Confused Attempt at Comedy.
I wasn't able to sit through the entire film, so these comments are qualified.
The story is that the corporation in which Dennis Quaid, at the age of 51, is head of the magazine advertising department. The company is undergoing some downsizing and employees all have the jitters about being fired -- "Let go," as the expression has it. Quaid is dismayed when he's told that he'll be demoted to assistant chief executive deputy of magazine advertising. "You're not letting me go!," he exclaims. "I don't WANT to go; you're firing me!" And amusing point.
When he meets the new chief of magazine advertising, Topher Grace, his jaw drops. "How old are you?" "Twenty-six," replies Grace. "I'm 51 and you're going to be my boss." It's a humiliating experience. I was 49 with four college degrees behind me when I applied for a job as a pizza delivery boy, one of those kids who wears a colorful Edwardian outfit and shouts, "Look out -- hot stuff!" My boss would have been 21, but I didn't get the job after I replied to his query, "Got any delivery experience, sir?" Poor Dennis Quaid.
The movie has some virtues aside from these incongruous juxtapositions. The teen-aged Scarlett Johansson is one of them. Topher Grace understandably is smitten by her.
But Topher Grace's character is not one of the virtues. He's an innocent-looking guy, kind of appealing, but his character as written is a mess. He's supposed to be a whiz kid, but the examples of his genius that we see don't elevate him in my esteem. Most cell phones are bought by kids, so let's manufacture them in the shape of dinosaurs and instead of ringing, they'll roar.
It's hard to know what they were getting at when the part was written. He constantly confesses to being nervous, and yet he's adamantine at work. It's as if we were learning that Idi Amin was nervous. I suppose his confession is designed to make us feel empathic towards him, the poor kid. He's 26, making a million dollars a year and is bursting with social status and power, and we feel sorry because he's nervous.
I have a feeling that I know what the tale was getting at -- all these status discrepancies -- but the way they're treated resembles the failed pilot of a TV situation comedy. It was a disappointment because, well, comedy NOW -- more than ever! And there have been some good ones -- "The In Laws," "Analyze This!", and "The Freshman." But I wouldn't include "In Good Company" on that list.
Pony Soldier (1952)
Duncan MacDonald, At Your Service.
It's 1876. The Cree Indians of Saskatchewan have crossed the US border to hunt buffalo. There is a clash with the US cavalry and Standing Bear leads his Cree back across the border, taking two white hostages. It's the task of Constable Tyrone Power in full RCMP panoply to located the Cree, rescue the hostages, and talk Standing Bear into returning to the reservation, where they will be provided with food and shelter. Standing Bear is a reasonable guy. But he has to contend with Cameron Mitchell as Konah, the young Turk who wants to kill all the white. Likewise, one of the white hostages, a bank robber, would love to kill all the Indians. How do you handle a minority that actually seems to enjoy the prospect of war and killing? It's a perennial problem and culture doesn't seem to count for much.
It's an unusual Western in that it deals as much with the issues facing the Cree as it does with the problems facing Tyrone Power. Power is the protagonist, the principled central figure, but the milieu is that of the Cree, and they're no more stereotyped than any other group liable to be found in a typical 1950s feature film.
Standing Bear is thoughtful, spiritual, democratic, and a man of his word. But the aggressive Konah is not shown as evil either, just mistaken in his values. Of course, he gets it in the end anyway. There must be a final shoot out in a Western and somebody has to die.
The dialog gets a couple of things right. Duncan in Gaelic may very well mean "brown warrior." The Cree and the American Blackfeet actually were at odds with one another. And the talk of "medicine" was real enough -- and still is. I lived with the Blackfeet as an anthropologist and the medicine man has a social status at least equal to that of his Christian counterpart.
At the same time, the dialog is stilted and "Indian-like". In the case of Thomas Gomez, as the comic sidekick, it sounds like Charlie Chan. And although the narration refers to the humiliation of the Cree's defeat at the hands of the Long Knives, the Plains Indians didn't really care much about victory or defeat. Like T. E. Lawrence's Arabs, they fought for a while and then went home when they were tired of it.
The movie isn't filled with action, and I must say not all of it rings true. It's more suspenseful than thrilling, but the musical score hints at Canada's national anthem and the photography can be luscious. It's enlightening too. Canada is as vast as the US, had all kinds of Indians and still does. Yet it never went through the genocidal Indian Wars that America did. I wonder how come? Did we have more Konahs, on both sides?
Blood and Treasure.
The battle for Stalingrad in 1942 was the biggest set piece of World War II. Under Hitler's orders, the Germans lost an entire army, but it was the Russians who suffered more. One million, one hundred thousand soldiers and civilians died defending the city. (San Francisco has a population of about 750,000, for comparison.) It took a chunk out of the Soviet Union's age structure. Instead of a smooth-sided pyramid with a broad base of young children and a point at the top, representing the very old, the sides of the pyramid representing the generation that fought through World War II seem to have been eaten away by sharks.
But every combatant nation suffered losses, though not as great as Russia's. And that's only the "blood", not the "treasure." The cost of one American aircraft carrier now is equal to the entire defense budget of the UK. The Soviet Union literally spent itself into oblivion financing a war machine at the expense of consumer goods, infrastructure, and public works.
The documentary takes us from the battle for Stalingrad, through the end of the war, through the Cold War, Korea, the Vietnam war, the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and the chaotic situation in much of Africa.
John Keegan is on hand to help us with his perceptive comments. His conclusion is that there are two possibilities for the future. Either more powerful nations must learn how to prevent or reduce small-arms wars between ethnic or religious groups, or else engage in a major territorial conflict that inevitably will lead to the use of nuclear weapons and the end of what we call civilization.
Keegan is optimistic about finding the first sort of solution. I hope he's right but I doubt it. Collective aggression will end only when we're able to peel back part of the skull and begin removing parts of the brain governing the rage response, beginning with the neighborhood of the amygdala. It's disheartening to hear veteran helicopter pilots of Vietnam describe how exhilarating their combat experience was. Hatred may be a function of human nature, though we don't like to think so, and if it is, we need an enemy. If there isn't one, we'll invent one who is convenient.
The Riverside Murder (1935)
A handful of men are involved in a kind of pact, a multiple partnership, in which they've pooled some of their money to be divided later. If one dies, his part stays in the pool. Don't ask me for details. I understand that similar arrangements are common among the traditional Chinese but that's as far as I go.
A member of the pact is shot to death while feeding his canary. The inspector, Basil Sydney, and his sergeant, Alistair Sims, rush to the house and call the other pact members to gather there. Everyone is hectored by one of those ambitious and impudent young reporters looking for a scoop. In this instance it's Judy Gunn, a cute blond. One by one, the other pact members are shot at or picked off. Sydney is at his wit's end trying to keep up with the fast-moving events as shots ring out and people dash through doors.
It's all very talky and stagy. There appear to be about four sets. Of course, this is 1935. The British film industry isn't exactly prospering. (One scene takes place in a movie studio and the director is clearly an American.) And of course, budget limitations aside, no one expects elaborate computer-generated images, Squibbs, or other special effects.
Despite the rushing around, the result is a rather static film in which murders are unraveled in a routine way. Slow it all down, replace Basil Sydney and Alistair Sim with Sidney Toler and Key Luke, and you've got "Charlie Chan and the Secret Pact." Yet it's not without its felicities. They're subtle but clever. Sydney is irritated at the constant distractions of Judy Gunn so he handcuffs her to a banister for a few minutes. As he's releasing her, she says, "You ARE taking me to dinner, aren't you?" Not a chance. "That's fine," she snaps. "You give a girl a bracelet and then won't take her to dinner. I'm compromised." Cut to the pair at a cafeteria buffet. "How about a sweet?", asks Sydney. Well, I found it relatively elegant, given all the stale conversation. "Aye -- three murders." "And the answer to it all is somewhere in this house." Alistair Sim does a good number on his Scottish accent. Keep an eye open for Tom Helmore. He was Kim Novak's murderous husband, Gavin Elster, in Hitchcock's "Vertigo."