Sunday, July 20, 2014

JAMES GARNER (1928-2014) - A Tribute
It's an overpraised and too heavily focused on concept in the entertainment industry. If you're a performer, it's the equivalent of a happy ending for a movie - a must-have item.
Well, as a performer, James Garner well and truly had likeability. Though he once said, "I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote," there clearly seems to have been some aspect of Garner that still came through in even the best written of his roles - he generally seemed like a decent, likeable guy.
James Garner was one of those people who took a roundabout path to stardom: Coming out of Oklahoma, dropping out of school to join the Merchant Marines, getting wounded (twice) during the Korean War, and eventually ending up in small parts on Broadway, then moving on to Hollywood and fame and fortune. Surely this equal parts earthy and salty background as a person informed his performances as an actor.
After doing time in supporting parts on TV for several years, Garner first hit it big as the star of the TV western Maverick, which aired from 1957-62. From there, he made the jump to starring roles in a wide variety of movies.

One of my favorite of his films is 1962's Boys Night Out, in which Garner co-starred with Kim Novak, Tony Randall, Howard Duff and William Bendix. Though a terribly dated film today in many respects, it still entertains, and Garner has a terrific scene in which he explains that he is drunk because he had "tee many martoonis."
Garner followed this light sex comedy with the classic action film, The Great Escape (1963), co-starring with Steve McQueen. In 1965, he made another of my personal favorites of his films, the World War II thriller, 36 Hours, with Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor. Based on a Roald Dahl story, it tells the tale of Major Jefferson Pike (Garner), who is captured by the Nazis, who then try to convince him that the war is over, so that he'll divulge information about an upcoming U.S. military invasion. It's a tight, lightly Hitchcockian film, and Garner is very good as the beleaguered Pike.
In 1967, in Hour of the Gun, Garner played the iconic Wyatt Earp opposite Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton, and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday. A couple of years later, he played Raymond Chandler's iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, in the film Marlowe (1969), a role that had previously been played by Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Montgomery. (And that would soon also be played by Robert Mitchum.) Even if Garner's career had ended here, he was obviously already in heady, and very manly, company.
But 1969 also found Garner in lighter fare, starring in the popular comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff! This was followed by a sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter, in 1971. Both of these films seemed to be in endless rotation on TV when I was a kid, and I would always tune in to watch Garner (and Jack Elam, his sidekick in both films) bumble their way through the Wild West.
Then, beginning in 1974, Garner scored the role that would well and truly define his career for all time - low rent private investigator Jim Rockford on the TV series The Rockford Files (1974-80).
To digress for a moment...The 1970s were an awful, ugly decade. The colorful tie dye swirls of the 60s degraded into what I call the terrible Taco Bell trio of colors - everything seemed to be mustard yellow, orange and the world's worst shade of brown. Energetic psychedelic freak out rock became bloated "progressive" rock. Pop music became disco. Bellbottoms and pet rocks. Culture-wise, it was pretty rough going most of the time. For years I've said that the only two good things to come out of American pop culture during the 1970s were the Ramones and The Rockford Files. That might be an oversimplification, but I'll still stand by that statement.
The Rockford Files took a well established and tired genre - the TV P.I. - and breathed new life into it, and created a show that was greatly entertaining at the time, and still is greatly entertaining today. And at the heart of it all was the infinitely watchable and charming James Garner. (Who was, admittedly, also surrounded by a rock-solid supporting cast that included Noah Beery, Jr. as his father, Joe Santos as the ever put upon Dennis Becker, and Stuart Margolin as the world's greatest weasel, Angel. Other recurring performers included Bo Hopkins, Isaac Hayes, Strother Martin, my friend Mills Watson, and even Lauren Bacall.)

Jim Rockford was a far cry from the often glamorous and/or tough guy private investigators that had populated TV and movies for decades. Rockford seemed to be on the losing end of fights more often than not. He couldn't necessarily run faster than the people he would chase - or who would chase him. He got things wrong. He fell behind on his bills. But his dogged determination (mixed with a healthy dose of self-preservation) and Garner's skill as an actor made almost every episode of the original series a delight. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched a lot of TV shows, but The Rockford Files is the only one that's still vivid in my memory - and is the only one I'd want to watch again as an adult. It's not weighty, it's not meaningful, but as entertainment, it has more than stood the test of time.
John Wayne once called James Garner the best American actor. Well, maybe - or maybe not. But there's no denying his talent and charm. We have literally hundreds of examples of that captured for all time on tape and film. Though I certainly wouldn't say that I like everything he ever did, James Garner created some performances that I will always enjoy, and that I will want to revisit from time to time throughout my life. On a more routine and daily basis, it's hard for me to see an answering machine and not immediately hear him saying, "This is Jim Rockford..."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

THE PURGE: ANARCHY (2014) - A Review

I didn't see The Purge (2013) in a theater, but did finally see it on DVD not that long ago. It was a flawed film, but one driven by an intriguing premise: In the not-too-distant future, America's New Founding Fathers pass a law instituting The Purge, a 12-hour period that comes once a year during which all crimes, up to and including murder, are legal. The Purge is sold as a state-sanctioned way for people to release and cleanse themselves of anger, and to reduce crime.
Within the context of the films, this set-up has a perverse logic to it. You're less likely to do something (rob, cheat, steal) to someone if you are aware that they can legally get back at you in the most extreme manner a few months later. It takes the concept of mutually assured destruction down to a personal level. (Both films also take pains to make it clear that politicians with a rating of "class 10 or higher" are not fair game during The Purge.)

The first film focused on an intact and successful white family that lived in the suburbs. Needless to say, it turned out that even a secure house in the 'burbs wasn't safe from the jealousy and anger that drives people to Purge. Given the current racial and economic politics of life in America, it only makes sense that this sequel shifts to a larger urban area, and features a whole lot more brown-skinned people, racial politics, and keeps coming back to the issue of economic inequality. As an action film that doubles as social commentary, especially in the area of (quite literal) class warfare, The Purge: Anarchy is far more effective and engaging than the recent, and overpraised, Snowpiercer (2014). Where that film was awkward, a little heavy handed, and set in a distant science fiction future, Anarchy is set in a future that feels about as far away as next weekend, and is set in a place - The American City - that will be familiar to most audience members.

Not unlike John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981), this film centers around a small group of people on the run inside a large city, with all manner of enemies also roaming about. However, while both are essentially action films, Anarchy's unbroken serious tone and political commentary make it a very different kind of action film. Despite the disreputable nature of genre films in some people's eyes, I would hope that, over time, people would give these Purge films a chance, and some serious consideration as social commentary. Like it or not, these films do deserve to be taken seriously. The fact that they work as both entertainment and commentary is not a strike against either notion. It's the fact that these two elements are so naturally intertwined that makes them compelling.
Several of the reviews of this film I read before seeing it bashed it for being based on a totally unrealistic concept. They felt that there was no way that the far right in this country would ever pass a law that sanctioned even a temporary period of anarchy, because they stand for law and order - not lawful disorder. They also felt that there was no way that voters, especially poor and vulnerable ones, would support such a policy.
From my perspective, the idea of The Purge is all too believable. For one thing, people vote against their own interests all the time. Read Thomas Frank's classic What's the Matter with Kansas? as a starting point on that subject.

As for the far right not supporting violent disorder...I think there are some renegade ranchers and immigration protesters in the southwest that could quickly dispel that notion. Some of the things we've seen and heard coming out of these angry mobs could be right out of The Purge. And remember: Much of this anger has been directed at children. By supposedly family-friendly conservatives. Purge much, Fox News?

And The Purge actually is happening all around us, but it's just spread out over the whole year, rather than being confined to one 12-hour period. Smoking is The Purge. Fast food is The Purge. Union busting is The Purge. These insane "stand your ground" laws in some states are The Purge. Whenever a company sells a product that they know will harm or kill X number of people, that's The Purge. The films just amp up something that's already happening for dramatic effect - and as a license to comment on what we're doing to each other.
After seeing the first film, I could easily envision a million different scenarios to explore in future films. This first sequel - surely there will be more - goes down a very fruitful and thought-provoking path, and is far better than the original film in almost all respects. (There are some flaws, including the overly spacious apartments of the supposedly poor main characters, and an overdressed and over the top internet revolutionary, but they don't lessen the overall effectiveness of the film.) With so many possibilities for future episodes, I look forward to seeing where these films go next. Though I am generally against the disease of sequelitis, in this case, I think there are many, many more Purges waiting to be seen. The possibilities are endless.
We've been warned.