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Play It Again, Sam (1972)
Son of Sam
Play It Again, Sam from 1972 marks the beginning of Woody Allen's filmmaking career, and essentially sets the mold for what would become the "Woody Allen" style, a self-conscious review of the filmmaker's view of the world, and essentially a monologue with other characters filling in to voice arguments so the filmmaker can elucidate.
Allan Felix (Woody Allen) is a film critic living in San Francisco recently divorced from his wife and trying to restart his social life by dating again. Allen suffers from extreme moments of insecurity and delusions of grandeur. His best friends, married couple Linda (Diane Keaton) and Dick (Tony Roberts) try to introduce Allen to some eligible women but none of them really like him. When he cerebrally conjures the spirit of Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy) to call on a catalogue of techniques from classic films he's appeared in Allen finally breaks through his block. After spending time with Linda, Allen falls in love with her and takes her to bed only to realize just as in Casablanca, a noble act transcends the physical act of lovemaking.
There were earlier films. Take the Money and Run in 1969, Bananas in 1971, and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex in 1972 all had the Woody Allen touch, exhibiting his particular comedic style in writing and performing but Play It Again, Sam touched on a core issue that virtually everyone experienced. With the Oscar awarded to Annie Hall in 1977 Allen had clearly managed to create a whole new film genre based on self-reflection and the heralding of the little guy in society.
Woody Allen himself tries a little too hard in this flick, laying out the slapstick in consummate Charlie Chaplin style in visual gags that are funny, but overload the film with too much physicality. Allen's real talent is his ability at voicing humorous perceptions of life in pithy terms and applying it to the most mundane social activity in real affective ways.
Even his grandest failures come across as the most heartfelt attempts to unveil truth about the human condition. Woody Allen would return to retool some parts of his thematic material in 1985 in the film The Purple Rose of Cairo in which a character falls into the world of an old movie so deeply that she bonds with a character from the film and he is released into the real world. It's a fascinating idea and maybe one for the romantic in all of us, possibly too "old school" for the average viewer who is more sophisticated than one in the 70s.
As directed by Herbert Ross, Play it Again, Sam feels smoothed over a little too much, relying on comic business to carry the narrative. Woody Allen had previously proved his merriment mettle in Bananas, Don't Drink the Water, Take the Money and Run, and a host of hired-gun gigs for TV and film. The strength of Woody's stories is that the point of view is always from the fractured mentality of the main character.
The English Teacher (2013)
Teach Me Tonight
With any other actress in the lead role of a spinster English teacher in a small Pennsylvania town The English Teacher may have flopped entirely on its own misshapen face, but under the devices of Juliann Moore nerdy Linda Sinclair shows us a lot about how best intentions can cause the worst outcomes and teach us so much about life.
Teaching high-school English in Kingston, PA Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) is a judgmental customer when it comes to dating. At 45, and unmarried she views every potential mate with a harsh grading system much like the one she uses in her class room where students are delighted by her firm but supportive guidance. When former star pupil Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) comes to town disheartened from his labors in New York to become a playwright, Linda attempts to show her students and surly Jason what it's like to see creative writing fleshed out. Linda pushes the young writers play into production at the high school much to the chagrin of his father Dr. Tom Sherwood (Greg Kinnear) who wants his son to become a lawyer. When Linda and Jason sleep together the event shakes the English teacher out of her well-constructed cocoon and when the student body gets wind of the affair, Linda discovers that she must come out of her shell completely to save her job, save the show, and rebuild her own self respect.
They say that the best comedies are terrible things that happen to other people. When we see poor Julianne Moore's hopeless romantic Linda Sinclair's life tumble our initial reaction is thwarted by a cavalcade of events that progressively erode into a tragedy except for the fact that her character loves every aspect of what is happening to her because it fuels a deep-seated need for drama in her sheltered world.
The filmmakers have a host of support actors led by the stalwart Nathan Lane as the wise and sensitive drama teacher Carl Kapinas (whose name all the students purposely mispronounce to make it sound dirty) and Lily Collins, Norbert Leo Butz, Jessica Hecht, Charlie Saxton and others. Watching Jason's play in rehearsal offers some of the most hilarious moments in the film, and anyone who has been in high school productions, or community theatre for that matter will see some of their friends here.
The films overall subversive nature is off-putting for anyone really thinking about what the screenwriters Dan Chariton, and Stacy Chariton are putting out there. On the one hand they have their story narrated by an unseen Narrator presented by Fiona Shaw whose voice like the goddess of English Literature reminds us of the correct direction of the tale as it unfolds. This traditional and romantic viewpoint is undermined by the real-life events of a young playwright attempting to have his own writer's voice heard. The clashes of these two realities coalesce into an unusual parable about male and female relationships as unattainable in the post-modern world.
The overall idea that our public literature classes are producing staid and packaged pseudo intellectuals is addressed by the suggestive Narrator of the story being essentially shut out as Linda finds the right man for her. This is high comedy, something we smile at as the screen fades and anyone who has been in high school will feel the effects of the banal questioning from teachers after we have read A Tale of Two Cities, begging us to understand the idea of self-sacrifice.
The Naked Spur (1953)
Spurring Us On
Perhaps one of a special hybrid of western-noir adventure The Naked Spur effectively blends genres to deliver a satisfying story that resonates long after the final scene. From the start we wonder what's up in this mysterious western as Stewart's Kemp sneaks up on a prospector camped out in the Colorado Mountains. That the man doing the sneaking is everyman James Stewart whom we've come to identify with in so many films as that sort of man who is in trouble. Here in this film it is his emotional psych that is being troubled as he appears to be criminal in his actions.
When Howard Kemp (James Stewart) approaches a secluded plateau in pursuit of a criminal he employs the aid of prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and dishonorable soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) to help him capture accused killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) and bring him in to justice. Vandergroat was arrested for shooting an unarmed man and has fled with virginal Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) in tow. It seems that Kemp and Vandergroat has a past history and when the criminal lets out that a reward is offer for him the other men step up for a piece of the take. It seems that when Kemp went off to fight the Civil War and left his home and property in the hands of his fiancé, she sold it and left with the profits, and the reward will get his land back. Vandergroat works to get the others to go against Kemp, and as the odds turn a head to head confrontation becomes inevitable.
The script keeps us in the dark about Kemp's purpose and when we hear Vandergroat spill the beans about the reward it serves to cast doubt on the supposed accusations about who's guilty. This particularly "noir" touch is what gives the film its troubling core.. Stewart is a man who is keeping a secret and his motivating the others to aid him in his scheme supports the modern idea that the difference between good people and bad is the quality of their corrupt ethical values.
The shadow of guilt that shifts between Kemp to Vandergroat as other characters are swayed by the lure of wealth transforms the ad hoc community to a distrustful one. This dark vision of the world is something screenwriter Sam Rolfe may have been honing his skill set for his later work on the TV show Have Gun will Travel about a cowboy detective dressed in black who did dirty investigative work in the old West.
This noir bleakness is the single item that bonds the men in this film, a common denominator as all the men become desirous of the reward, and of the virginal Lina. As the only woman in the narrative Janet Leigh's Lina Patch is a character that carries the double weight of virgin, and fallen woman and as the tensions shift between characters, her own value changes as property of either the good man on a tainted mission, or the bad man voicing the truth about his actions. It was Leigh's first real film role, and a testament to her abilities at expressing the emotional changes that pull the character through the story.
The film, however noir in its design, still delivers a great Hollywood ending that redeems both the lead character and manages to reaffirm the basic value of love, faith, and community. This is one of the things that James Stewart always brought to a movie, and in his post-Army days as he was returning to active work as an actor, it was an interesting mellowing of his basic persona that was present in early comedies. Perhaps it was the 52-mission flight record he logged in when flying in the Air Corp and experiencing the first-hand understanding of the fragile barrier between life and death that developed him into such a fine actor in his later career.
If you return to this tale after a first-viewing experience, the filmmakers have succeeded in their goal. It is a treat.
Fat City (1972)
Lean Times in Fat City
By the time John Huston made Fat City in 1972 his glory as one of the finest directors in Hollywood was fading. But this character study put him back up on top of the A list with the new breed of filmmakers of the period who were essentially going against the political core of the established movie-making industry.
In Stockton California ex-boxer Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) takes a job as a day laborer to make ends meet and takes a break to go to the gym for a workout. When he meets young Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) and spars with him he is impressed with his natural boxing abilities. Tully sends Ernie to meet his former manager who takes the young boxer into his care for training. When Tully isn't working he hangs out in bars talking of his return to the ring. He meets Oma (Susan Tyrrell) in a bar and moves in with her and returns to his manager to train for another fight. Meanwhile Ernie settles down with a pregnant wife and continues to pursue his boxing and support his family. Through all the trials and tribulations each man learns that the value of his own life is a culmination of hard-earned small victories.
The film is a study in the balance of styles, and characters, sometimes opposites, but always comparing one with another. Stacy Keach's washed up boxer Billy Tully is balanced against eager, youthful Jeff Bridges as Ernie Munger and in this comparison the filmmakers make a simple statement of how choices of occupations not only determine a man's character, but his fate as well.
The women figures in the film are also designed around a symbolic fulcrum. The world weary Oma as played by Susan Tyrell could be the future or the opposite of Candy Clark's innocence loving Faye. Oma is resentful and intoxicated, whereas Faye is enlightened by her new-found knowledge of the relationship that can occur between man and woman.
Each veteran boxer is introduced to the viewer lying down and coming to life as if resurrected from the dead. We first meet Tully rolling over in bed just looking for a light for his cigarette, and as he continues moving about into the world, gives up and just moves out of his rented room. Later we are introduced to the pro boxer, Sixto Rodriguez's Lucero moving up from a prone position to take some unidentified medication and appearing in the bathroom with medical troubles.
Aside from the open-ended existentialism of the narrative, the cinematography by Conrad L. Hall which captures the natural light and urban landscape of the skid row area of Stockton Californiais worth the visit to this film. Many scenes of dialogue-less action feature merely the visual content of the world of small dreams and broken hopes.
The look of the film recalls in many ways the canvasses of Edward Hopper with whole areas of light dedicated to details of the landscape and its weight on solitary human figures residing within the frame. Hall's work can be seen in classics such as Cool Hand Luke from 1967, the Oscar-winning films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from 1969, American Beauty from 1999, and the graphic-novel adaptation Road to Perdition from 2002. Hall is one of only six cinematographers to have his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame.
The film was based on the boxing novel Fat City (1969) by Leonard Gardner, who penned the script for the movie. Virtually all the shooting was on location in a part of the skid row section of Stockton that doesn't exist anymore. Thus this movie is partly an historical document of the city and what it looked like before progress paved the way for a new highway and torn down many of the buildings.
This film is one to return to again for the excellent direction, the great substantial acting and the beautiful cinematography. Cherish it as one of John Huston's best works.
The Swap Tops
There's bad (I'm not talking Andy Warhol's Bad, which utilizes style to make statements about bad movies like these), and then there's really bad, and ultimately it comes down to a matter of taste, and how a filmmaker uncovers his subject.
Director Joe Sarno cleverly understands the basic urge of the viewer and slowly reveals more and more of the relationships that develop within his narrative. This keeps this otherwise vapid piece of filmmaking afloat as the essential prurient interest that exist in all of us is satisfied as characters undress, and the flat-footed development of the plot moves toward its dénouement.
Static camera set-ups transfer a mind-numbing presentation from all the actors because the basic plasticity of the medium is not being used to make their performances and the subject matter better. The static camera does actually work well in some scenes in which the characters appear as vacant uninspired ciphers lost in a world of banality and seeking the only activity they can understand which will give their lives meaning.
The inability of the camera to move from its base reflects the inability if the characters to move within their own social levels. Sarno handles the stasis of his well-done black and white cinematography having characters enter into rooms with deep focus, and moving within the limited frame. The feeling of claustrophobia permeates scenes as sometimes as a many as six characters are boxed into the frame in medium close up further translating the idea of inertia weighing on this community.
This inert existence that is the world of the film has interesting moments of humor. When Mona and Les plan a night of love-making and Les falls asleep Mona shrieks and slaps him awake, and then storms away insulted. This is funny stuff and it appears that if director Sarno had been more aware of this natural inclination he could have made one great comic film is the vein of the kind of films John Waters or even Andy Warhol was making in the 60s.
Sin in the Suburbs (1964)
Sinful - NOT
This 'midnight' movie from 1964 rates high on the sleaze factor, and aside from the inept scripting and bad acting, director Joe Sarno manages to give us something interesting in some of the camera framing and some of the ideas in the story. If you can stay awake past the mind-numbingly slow exposition and get to the nub of the story the movie does gain momentum, albeit to a muddled climax.
In a small New England town Geraldine Lewis (Audrey Campbell) becomes bored when her workaholic husband ignores her and she gets interested in other men, and begins taking extramarital afternoon trysts with a neighborhood friend and another man. Her daughter Kathy (Alice Linville), just beginning to understand her feelings about personal relationships comes home early from school one day to discover her mother in a clinch. Shocked and confused Kathy confides to neighbor Yvette Tallman (Dyanne Thorne) and the older woman seduces the young girl. Yvette and her incestuous brother Lou (W.B. Parker) initiate and organize a neighborhood sex-swap ring and Geraldine and others are lured in but danger is imminent when under-age Kathy is brought in too.
This is Dyanne Thorne's first film, after which she went on to other cult faves like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and other sleaze-founded films. Thorne will delight the male viewer s her character is a voluptuous coquette who seduces men and women for whatever she wants. Not an actress Thorne manages to present to the camera two emotive states seducing and just plain nothing. As a support co-star she could've been better with a better script, maybe.
The real actress is Judy Young who plays Kathy. Her performance is muted, substantial, and detailed and she shows the viewer the real soul of the film. It is too bed that this actress never got a real break. The best thing she was able to accomplish is a guest-starring role on Welcome Back Kotter.
The film does have some good moments. Cinematography by James J. Markos and camera work is good even though lighting is laughable. The way actors move in and out of frame restricts the viewer from gaining all the information and his bit of creativity allows a more dynamic connection with the story.
The Violent Years (1956)
This clear "message" movie begins with a hep jazzy score and a blackboard with inspiring socially-concerned words written across it as lead actress Jean Moorland and other women enter and make dismissive gestures as to the value of the epithets.
When the film shifts to a court room with character actor as Judge handing down a lesson sentence to the parents we know we're in that fuzzy land of Ed Wood whose flat-footed aesthetic has now become legend and imitated for its value in what it can say about its subject as well as what it says about the source of the story it tells.
Rich kid Paula Parkins (Jean Moorhead) and her gang of tough high school women friends spend their days and nights committing crimes, and getting away with it because she uses her parents car and fences stolen goods though and underground source. When not stealing they terrorize the citizenry with extremes like raping young men, and indulge in heavy petting parties at their parents house. When a local closet communist hires the girls to vandalize a high school police are tipped off and guns are fired. Paula finds herself in jail, pregnant from a one-night stand and her parents are left with the blame.
The film was a modest money maker on the B circuit and one can only owe this to the titillating title and all-women cast involved in dastardly deeds against society. This may have been the closest Ed Wood came to monetary success, having written the script for the film.
Many of the subversive ideas and themes can be ascertained in how the lead women refer to each other with men's names, making their rape of a young man all the more subversive. Writer Ed Wood was no dummy when it came to reusing successful formats. He later retooled the screenplay for Fugitive Girls which morphed into Five Loose Women in 1974.
Girl Gang (1954)
A study in drug abuse like Reefer Madness, Girl Gang emphasizes the sleazy aspects associated with like-minded juveniles who find themselves corrupted by marijuana, and Heroin and delivers a mish mash of gratuitous exploitation.
In an isolated apartment on the wrong side of the tracks June (Joanne Arnold) hangs out with her friends who come there to buy "weed" cigarettes, marijuana, from Joe (Timothy Farrell) who runs a business of selling Heroin to school kids and getting them addicted so they will pull crimes for him. Joe keeps a disbarred alcoholic physician Doc (Harry Keaton) on hand to help with assisting the school kids with clean injections. Joe secures a job for June with a local merchant in order to support her mounting heroin habit. June begins selling sexual favors, and when she is caught stealing money from a business Joe and Doc come forward to blackmail the man into silence. When Joe sends June and some others out to rob a local gas station, a girl gets shot and the police close in on the drug-infested apartment.
It's too bad that, given the resources, the movie could not have been better. Judging by the mise-en-scene, the budget for the film looks to be about as good as it was for Detour nine years earlier. The major difference being that Detour has a strong central character and a strong story arc that carries the viewer from the opening through to the end, whereas Girl Gang never seems to focus on the right thing, first having a girl-gang robbery, which introduces us to drug dealer Joe, which leads us to June, but since June is our main character it only makes sense for us to learn about her and where she comes from and why she has ended up at Joe's apartment. Since we never know why June does what she does we have nothing to care about in the character and her downfall doesn't mean anything to us.
Part of this is the charismatic screen persona of leads Tom Neal and Ann Savage in Detour. Not to take away from the relative merits of Joanne Arnold, and Timothy Farrell, but they were not A-listers nor were they strong actors, although Farrell did have a stronger presence than the eye-candy Arnold. To be honest Arnold was cast because they had a great body and this vehicle was to sell from the male gaze that was seeking cheap visual thrills from her presence on screen.
Arnoldhad done the Playboy spread in 1954 and the producers must have thought they had a sure box-office with her in the movie. She's beautiful to look at but seeing her in motion in the movies it's clear she is not an actress. Her face never registers a glimmer of thought and the lack of her characters progression in the film makes it a flat gratuitous thing.
The Big Bird Cage (1972)
Exploitation is the key word with this flick with many scenes including degrading actions of the women being mistreated by the male guards of the camp. There are more than a few shots of female nudity with female prisoners in the showers, and the obligatory 'cat fight' with women mixing it up in the pressure-cooker of the prison, along with good scenes of women shooting automatic weapons, everything to make Quinton Tarantino tingle with delight.
In a Philippine night club a buxom torch singer Blossom (Pam Grier) works the crowd until her accompanist Django (Sid Haig) whips out a machine gun and the two rob the patrons. When patrons shoot back and Police close in Django narrowly escapes with a beautiful hostage Terry (Anitra Ford) whom he abandons because he touts his criminal actions as a support of a political revolution, and because she is considered the plaything of all the dignitaries of the country and below his respect. Terry is arrested by Police as an accomplice of the robbers and because of her high-profile relationship to government officials she is packed off to a women's prison in the countryside and Django learns from his band of criminals that they plan to overthrow the prison and kidnap the women so they can have happy families. Blossom and Django infiltrate the prison and plan an escape that enables Terry to lead the captive women to freedom but at a high cost.
One might argue that without director Jack Hill the actress Pam Grier might never have reached stardom. Hill was on a roll in the early 1970s, starting with Isle of the Snake People, and The Incredible Invasion, both in 1971. He followed with The Big Doll House in 1971 and the break-through for Pam Grier, The Big Bird Cage in 1972. The "Blaxploitation" hits Coffy (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974) put Grier on the map as the new representative of the black American urban persona that was taking on the rampant crime of the big city and eliminating them for the safety of the innocents living everywhere.
The most intentionally humorous moments in the flick, playing the delicate balance between comedy of manners and adventure, come from Sid Haig who clearly gets it. He plays every scene with a wink and a nod to the camera not unlike what Alan Hale used to do on the TV show Gilligan's Island. This lifts the film up from real bathos as the jokes all center on sex and the relationships between men and women.
Anitra Ford is the central character in this film despite the fact that Pam Grier gets top billing. This probably because it was basically Grier's vehicle and with her hot looks and her ethnicity she was the selling point for the flick- every male wanted to see this woman in all her voluptuous glory on the big screen.
Anitra Ford is the polar opposite of Grier in physical attributes and acting. To say that Ford underplays her part is an understatement she is easily the most somnambulistic of actresses, with never any tension in her body or voice. She is ostensibly the sympathetic character in the movie and the one the audience is led to identify with. Ford is NOT an actress and the camera loves her.
The Big Bird Cage is definitely one of the purest examples of 70s film genres that pushes the envelope in terms of female nudity. It's no wonder that Tarantino mines the decade for all its banality and kitsch pseudo humor.
The Girl Can't Help It (1956)
She Really Can't Help It
Jayne Mansfield's break-through in the film business came in the form of The Girl Can't Help It, less of a narrative film than a platform for a roster of top rock and roll musicians to showcase their acts and introduce the blonde bombshell as a sizzling new glamour-girl icon.
Faded talent agent Tom Miller (Tom Ewell) spends most nights soaking up free drinks and attempts to muster enough interest in the new rock and roll music to get back into the big time. When ex-con and gangster Marty 'Fats' Murdock (Edmond O'Brien) comes forth with an offer to make his girl friend Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield) a singing star Miller scoffs at the idea. Experienced Miller is wise enough to know real talent and doesn't sense it with Jerri. Murdock entices Miller with a fat bankroll and Miller moves forward with promoting Jerri. But Jerri doesn't want a singing career. She's a home body and really just wants to marry a good man and settle down to raise a family. Managing to produce a hit record with a song that Murdock himself composed Jerri becomes a star, and Murdock becomes the target for a rival gangster with a vested interest in the music business. As bullets begin flying Jerri and Miller discover their love for each other and hope they can survive success.
Mansfield doesn't so much act in the movie as moves through it. By the time she made it to The Girl Can't Help It she was known as a model with a double digit atomic-powered figure, and had bleached her dark hair blonde like another celebrity icon Marilyn Monroe.
Mansfield was marketed as the alternative Monroe, but in a concentrated version. Her physical dimensions were more appealing to the obsessed American male, her screen persona was more vacantly 'blonde', and her personal life was checkered by heightened controversy with numerous husbands and a litter of children.
This flick moves along with the broad exposition and delivery of a bad Las Vegas act with plenty of corny jokes and rough humor to keep the flat-footed narrative buoyant. Clunky jokes about Mansfield's body, gangsters, rock and roll, and talent management are set up and delivered well by the trio of leads Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, and Edmond O'Brien.
Adapted from Garson Kanin's novel "Do Re Mi" by director Frank Tashlin and Herbert Baker the narrative takes up about sixty percent of the movie. The rest of the film is an interesting document of the musical talents of the day. Ray Anthony, Fats Domino, The Platters, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps, the Treniers, Eddie Fontaine, Abbey Lincoln and Eddie Cochran all appear as themselves in musical showcases during sequences as Tom shepherds Jerri through the entertainment landscape of the day.
Director Frank Tashlin cut his teeth directing cartoons, and the way he helms this flick shows it. The funny moments of male obsession as characters react to Mansfield are juvenile to say the least but the way he captures the musical talent is well done. The sequences are not very authentic as the Hollywood sound stages are all dressed in candy-colored details to brighten up the vapid story line. However the music is all authentic with all the performers coming across as intriguing charismatic talents.
One sequence in particular comes across with a special eeriness when the imaginary incarnation of Julie London sings "Cry Me A River" to a drunken Tom who had supposedly discovered the singer but lost her due to his alcohol abuse. This regret-driven hallucination is goofily presented but with Tom Ewell in the male role playing against the haunting voice of London it takes on substantial weight in the over-lit comedic world of the film.
Edmond O'Brien comes on a little too heavy as the ex-con gangster Marty 'Fats' Murdock who is bankrolling Jerri's entry into the music business. O'Brien doesn't delivery lines so much as he pounds them into the face of the viewer. This is in keeping with the character, and it offsets the more nuanced performance of Ewell and straight delivery of Mansfield, but at times it would be great to see him with a lighter touch.
You'll get some fun out of an initial viewing of this one. Don't expect it to change your life. On the DVD there is also a nice biography about Jayne Mansfield that will illuminate and enlighten, and is better than the feature in some ways.