Wednesday, June 25, 2014

ELI WALLACH (1915-2014) - A Tribute
Eli Wallach was one of those stealth actors. Never really a star, certainly never really a leading man, but always interesting and enjoyable to watch. As a working actor, with a career in film spread out over a half century (and then some), he also has a sort of stealth career in some ways, winding up in a great many iconic and memorable films.
Needless to say, he will always be remembered for his, shall we say enthusiastic performance in 1966's ultimo classico western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The film may have put Clint Eastwood over the top as a star, but I suspect it's Wallach's over the top performance as the amoral Tuco (the Ugly) that people remember most vividly. Having just recently watched that particular film again, it really does belong to him. Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are all cool, stony silence, but Wallach tears into his role like Tuco would tear into a bottle of whiskey - as though it might be the last chance he gets to enjoy himself, so holding back is not an option.

My personal favorite film of Wallach's has him as a much more restrained but no less dangerous character, the intellectually curious but extremely violent hitman Dancer in The Lineup (1958). It's a great crime film, and the role of Dancer allowed Wallach to play a deeply flawed, multifaceted character that is a clear notch above the usual crime picture villain. If you've never seen it, it's absolutely worth checking out.

Of course, Eli Wallach had already made an indelible impression with his very first film role a couple of years earlier, in the controversial and condemned (by the Catholic Legion of Decency) classic, Baby Doll (1956). With a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, and direction by Elia Kazan, Wallach got handed a hot potato straight out of the shoot with his role as the slimy yet-not-entirely-unlikable Silva Vacarro. I don't know that I'd agree with the Legion of Decency about the film's moral laxity, but there's no denying its steamy Southern soap opera entertainment value.

Working in both TV and film, Wallach kept busy, and the classics kept coming. In 1960, he was in the beloved western, The Magnificent Seven, second billed after Yul Brynner, and appearing with Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn. The next year, with his next film, Wallach hit gold again, co-starring in 1961's The Misfits. It should be needless to say that this film is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was the final film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and also featured Montgomery Clift and Thelma Ritter. It's also heartbreaking and beautiful.

The would-be epic How the West Was Won came along in 1962, and, though not a very good film, it is notable as one of the few feature films to be shot in the ultra-widescreen Cinerama process. (Also appearing in it were his Baby Doll co-stars, Caroll Baker and Karl Malden.) Following this were supporting roles in two Peter O'Toole vehicles, Lord Jim (1965) and How to Steal a Million (1966). Later in 1966 came Tuco, and Wallach's cinematic immortality was assured.
Still, he never stopped working. Wallach appeared as Mr. Freeze on the campy Batman TV series in the 60s...or co-starring with Dean Martin in the lightweight comedy How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (1968)...Returned to the spaghetti western genre with Don't Turn the Other Cheek (1971)...And even found himself at the very gates of Hell in The Sentinel (1977). You might spot Eli Wallach on an episode of Kojak, in the pretentious and preposterous all-star trainwreck Winter Kills (1979), or co-starring with Johnny Cash in a made for TV movie like The Pride of Jessie Hallam (1981). His career spanned many years, many genres, and many mediums.

Eli Wallach always kept busy, kept acting, almost right up until the end. It seems clear that Eli Wallach loved his craft, and was indeed very good at that craft. He may have never been a big, big star, but he certainly earned a place in the heavens - though the odds are running 5-to-1 that Tuco would be headed for the Other Place.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

HERB JEFFRIES (1913-2014) - A Tribute
When I saw the headlines that Herb Jeffries had died, I knew immediately who he was. I'm guessing that not a lot of people would have had that instant recognition of his name. But before I could get to a place of thinking, Aw, Herb Jeffries died!, first I had to go through a moment of, What? You mean Herb Jeffries was still alive?
Though Jeffries had a career that spanned over seventy years, and was woven through the film and music industries in various ways, he is certainly best remembered as the star of a handful of race films in the 1930s - in this case, a handful of all-black cast westerns. I've seen four of the five westerns he starred in, and what they lack in production values they more than make up for in uniqueness and historical significance.

Now, from all available articles, it's clear that Jeffries was somewhat unclear (intentionally, it would seem) about his ethnicity. From my perspective, it's simplest to say that he was of mixed heritage, but, when he made the western race films in the 1930s, he identified himself as being black. True or not, that was a claim that would stick, if only for the fact that, given the nature of race relations at the time, it probably never would have occurred to anyone that someone would say they were black if they weren't.

So, taking Jeffries claim at least somewhat at face value, and given the undeniable fact that he starred in five race film westerns, in my opinion, his place in American cinematic history is unique and worth noting. I mean, I can't think of any other singing black movie cowboys from the 1930s - can you?
But Herb Jeffries lived a life that was interesting even if you ignore the five westerns he starred in. He also appeared as a singer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, scoring a hit with the song "Flamingo." Through his Ellington connection, he appeared in Jump for Joy, an all-black revue in 1941, which also featured Dorothy Dandridge and Big Joe Turner. Jeffries continued to record and tour well into his nineties!

His career in front of the camera, though sporadic, continued into the 1990s, with both film and TV work. Behind the camera, he directed a 1967 nudie movie, Mundo Depravados, which starred his the woman who was then his third wife, the iconic stripper and exotic dancer, Tempest Storm.

Circling back to the westerns again, in 2004, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well.

When you look back at the 20th century, it's pretty easy to imagine that millions of little boys at some point said that they wanted to grow up to be a cowboy, and live to be one hundred years old. When a lot of those boys got a little older, more than a few of them probably fantasized about marrying a famous exotic dancer, too. Well, Herb Jeffries did all of that, and a lot more. Talk about living a full life!
In a few months, we'll see the release of the new James Brown biopic. Is it too much to hope that some day we might also see a film about the long and fascinating life of Herb Jeffries? His story is perfect material for the biopic treatment. Hopefully, someday, the Bronze Buckaroo will ride across movie screens again. In the meantime, I'm going to try and track down the 2008 documentary, A Colored Life: The Herb Jeffries Story.

Monday, May 26, 2014

BUNNY YEAGER (1929-2014) - A Tribute
Like H.R. Giger who recently passed away, Bunny Yeager is probably not a household name, or one that you might necessarily connect to the movies. But like Giger, her presence is now threaded throughout American culture, especially in the visual arts and photography.
Born Linnea Eleanor Yeager in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, her family moved to Miami, Florida when she was 17, and it was there that Bunny was born - taking her name from a Lana Turner's character in Weekend at the Waldorf (1945).  
As a young woman, she was a pageant winner (Miss Trailer Coach of Dade County, Miss Personality of Miami Beach) and soon became a professional model.

Looking to economize, and control the production of her own prints, Bunny Yeager took up photography, enrolling in a night school photography class in her 20s.

And it was as a photographer that Bunny Yeager captured the images that would immortalize her, when she teamed up with the iconic model Bettie Page to create a number of classic photo series - including the shots of Bettie Page in a revealing Santa suit that appeared in Playboy magazine.

She also did make some movies, appearing as herself in some nudies shot by director Barry Mahon, such as Bunny Yeager's Nude Las Vegas (1964) and Nudes on Tiger Reef (1965). She also had credits as a "technical coordinator" on films like Nature's Sweethearts (1963) and How I Became a Nudist (1968). She also had a small part as "Bunny Fjord", a Swedish masseuse in Lady in Cement (1968) with Frank Sinatra.
Back behind the camera, she was also a still photographer for nudies like the bizarre Nude on the Moon (1961) and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962).

In 1962 she also took some (uncredited) stills for the James Bond film, Dr. No which are iconic in their own right. Obviously, the filmmakers wanted someone who knew how to capture vivid shots of women in bikinis. Obviously they succeeded.

I am well aware that some people will look at Bunny Yeager and see nothing but "sexism" and "objectification" of women. That's not the view I have. Was Bunny Yeager a beautiful woman? Yes she was. Did she parlay those looks into a career? Yes she did. Is sexuality an inherent part of human nature? Yes it is. And in Bunny Yeager's heyday, sexuality was viewed as both more threatening and more innocent than it is now. In my opinion, the fact that there is such a strong nostalgia and market for the types of "sexy" images that Bunny Yeager created speaks not to a carnal yearning so much as to a desire for a more innocent time. Bettie Page may have "bared all" physically, but she always did so with a sense of joy. That's a far cry from the show all, tell all, celebrity sex video culture we're all wading through now.

Bunny Yeager was much more than just a pretty face or lovely figure. She was an artist who took control of the means of production, and in that alone blazed trails that many others have since taken. Along the way, she also managed to capture some people and images that will have currency in our culture for lifetimes yet to come. Both those are legacies to be proud of.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

SADDLE THE WIND (1958) - A Review
This is a solid MGM western, not epic in scope or story, but absolutely a film that delivers a compelling and believable story (with a screenplay by Rod Serling) enacted by a top-notch cast.
At the heart of this film is the conflict between brothers Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) and his troubled younger brother, Tony (John Cassavetes). In the past, Steve was a hotshot gunslinger, but he's settled down into a stable life as a rancher. Unfortunately, his younger brother is neither settled or stable, and a number of conflicts become unavoidable when Tony returns home to the ranch with Joan Blake (Julie London), a saloon singer he has taken a shine to. She thought that Tony was her ticket out of the saloon and into a steady home life, but she soon sees what Steve sees - that Tony has the ability to destroy anything he touches.

Though this is set (and mostly filmed) in the vast west, and does feature some riding and shooting, the real action in this film is the conflict between the mature and responsible Steve and his violent, erratic (and probably mentally ill) brother. This small focus serves the film well, and makes for a nice contrast with the many westerns that are heavier on the fighting, shooting and action. Taylor and Cassavetes are very believable as the brothers, with similar features and coloring, and they both do good work here. Cassavetes has the showier part, given that Tony is an explosive hothead and constantly has something to prove, but Taylor grounds the film with his portrayal of the serious, duty-bound older brother. In the end, that sense of duty drives him to strap on his gun again and go after his own brother.
Julie London also does a good job here, and, playing to the crowd, is offered a chance to sing a song. Early on, she also declares to Steve that she's "not a slut," language that surprised me coming from 1958. (The line is also in the theatrical trailer for the film, so I guess it must not have been as shocking as all that.) Her character isn't necessarily essential to the plot, but she holds her own with the two leads.
The three name stars are more than ably assisted by an excellent supporting cast. Donald Crisp is very fine as a neighboring landowner who values morals and his word more than money. Charles McGraw, in his nasty tough guy mode, is effective as a gunslinger who comes looking for Steve Sinclair. And western regulars Royal Dano and Ray Teal are in there, too.

The only real complaint I have about this otherwise excellent production is that there are a few instances where scenes that were shot on location are (badly) intercut with scenes shot against a very obvious blue screen. But that's a minor quibble, and one that shouldn't detract from the enjoyment of this low-key but compelling western. At this point in history, the studio system was very much starting to break down - but at their most efficient, the studios were still capable of turning out satisfying films like this with ease. Would that such minor pleasures were so easily produced today.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) - A Review
Another day, another movie based on the comic books I loved so much as a kid. Comic books helped me to learn to love to read, inspired me to teach myself to draw, and generally helped nudge me in the direction of embracing literature and art as central to my life and my self-expression.

Now, if life would mirror the plot of this movie (based on a beloved storyline from the X-Men comic book) and someone were to go back in time to the 1970s and tell young Max that, in the future, all the comic heroes he loved were going to rule movie screens around the world, well, I'm sure that little Max would have been very happy and excited by that thought.
However, as an adult, living in this comic book bliss of a future, I think the actual results are turning out to be decidedly mixed.
I will admit to being somewhat excited by the prospect of this particular movie. I like the X-Men, I read the comics this movie is based on in my formative years, and hey, it was coming out on my birthday. So all indicators were positive going in.
Coming out...Well, I think that comic book fatigue may be setting in. (Mind you, I haven't even seen the latest iterations of Spider-Man.) My wife and I had watched X2 (2003) the night before we saw the new one, and it's a good thing we did. Much of the new movie plays off of themes and characters that featured prominently in that earlier film, so it was actually very useful to have had the refresher. Those coming to this new film without having seen previous ones are likely to spend much of the film just trying to keep up with who all the characters are, what their relationships and motivations are, etc.
In a nutshell, the new film goes like this: In a not-too-distant future, the world has been devastated by the Sentinels, giant mutant hunting robots who have expanded their mission to include those who sympathize with mutants, people who have a genetic predisposition to possibly have mutant children in the future, and so on. It's not a pretty picture. The few remaining X-Men, still led by Professor Xavier (still played by Patrick Stewart) hatch the plan to send someone back in time to the 1970s to try and change the course of events that brought the Sentinels into being in the first place.

Given the hardships of making such a journey (and the top-billed status of Hugh Jackman), it's decided that it makes the most sense to send Wolverine back - despite his being one of the least diplomatic of the group. So Wolverine is sent back, where he connects with the young Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), who eventually enlists in the plan to change history (or in his case, the future).
There's a little more to it than that, but you get the idea. The bulk of the film takes place in the 1970s, with bookends set in the Sentinel-dominated future. This means we get both young and old versions of several characters (notably Professor X and Magneto), in addition to a great many other mutant characters old and new.

The thing that most impressed me about the first X-Men (2000) was how smoothly it handled introducing the whole concept of the mutant community, the many different characters involved, and the plot of the film. The filmmakers had a lot of balls in the air, and they didn't drop any.
However, in this latest film, I think a ball or two may have hit the floor. The explosion of time periods, characters and their powers, villains and semi-villains, younger versions of characters we've seen before, teasers for characters we'll likely see again, various plotlines - it all got to be a bit too much. With all that, and the focus on the bankable (and likeable) Jackman, the film felt a mile wide and an inch deep. This was definitely a film from the school of Too Much Is Not Enough. As but one example of how overstuffed this film is: Anna Paquin is seventh-billed as Rogue - but she appears in only one shot. Yes, that's one shot, not one scene - and she hasn't a single line. Apparently they filmed more scenes with her character, but the film was so full and complex, that she got whittled down to just one shot.
The film also suffers from a lack of a clear villain. Yes, young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) does bad - but he also does some good. Peter Dinklage, as Dr. Bolivar Trask, the creator of the Sentinels, also clearly does some bad things - but it's entirely possible to believe his character thinks he's doing good. And the Sentinels themselves, silent CGI giants, aren't exactly a driving force, either.
So we're left with a whole lot of spectacle that I found less than spectacular. Despite the new plot and characters, a lot of this felt like pieces of the earlier films recut and put together to make a "new" product.
And it's that "product" feel that is the most disappointing. This film has a large and talented cast, yet no one really had a chance to shine, aside from Jackman. Yes, I couldn't help but (once again), key into the depth of meaning associated with the whole misunderstood and persecuted outsider theme - especially in light of the ongoing rollout of marriage equality in the U.S. Gays, mutants, Jews, etc. - we've been remarkably good as a species at finding ways to hate each other, and that hate has a corrosive effect on society.
That's a good and always-current message to have in a film. But here it was undercut by the corrosive effect of special effects. I know that film is a commercial medium, and I know that a lot of money get invested in making and marketing these movies. However, when the dictates of the market result in special effects being the only thing to affect an audience, you've created the cinematic equivalent of drive-though french fries - appealing in the moment they're fresh and hot, but nothing that will hold much appeal in a week or a year from now. Get 'em while they're hot, don't think about it too much, and then get in line for the next batch.
But these movies, coming from different studios, featuring different characters, really are becoming like french fries. Each "new" batch is exactly like the one before it. And the one before that. Special effects, explosions, quip, special effects, explosions, quip. Pass the ketchup.
Ugh. I'm full already!
Whether the heroes are humans or mutants, is it too much to ask that these characters be given a little more identifiable humanity in future? Is it too much to hope that we could possibly care for characters as much as we crave spectacle?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

H.R. GIGER (1940-2014) - A Tribute
Well, that's eerily appropriate. The last film I posted about here was Jodorowsky's Dune (2013), in which the artist H.R. Giger appeared and figured prominently. Now, just a little while later, he has died, after a taking a bad fall in his home. In the abovementioned documentary, he seemed to be struggling for breath, and I wondered at the time if he was in poor health.
In any case, Giger was, in my opinion, a genius. He was not just a technically brilliant artist, but also, with his self-described focus on "biomechanical" art, a visionary who foresaw (and influenced) many of the images and technologies that have come since he first made a splash in the art world.
Of course, the biggest splash that will forever be associated with Giger, is the splash of blood that came out of John Hurt's belly when Giger's alien in the film Alien (1979) burst out into the public consciousness. Giger designed what is arguably the greatest movie creature of all time - a monster that will give kids nightmares for as long as there's a human race.

When Alien came out, I was in Alaska, visiting my father in Anchorage. He was as a maƮtre de at a swank downtown restaurant (the Corsair) and thus was working in the evenings. But I desperately wanted to see Alien, so he asked a sweet and pretty French waitress there if she would take me to the movie. (I was a kid, and it was very much rated R.) She agreed.
This was an act of kindness she may still regret. I don't remember her name all these years later, but I can still recall her face when we walked out of the theater. She looked shellshocked, pale. I don't know what she thought she was going to go see, but clearly she wasn't expecting that. She quietly escorted me home, then probably went home to have a good cry, or a stiff drink - or both.

Giger won an Oscar in 1980 for his incredibly effective visual effects. He deserved it. And if all he had ever done was created that slimy alien, he'd be worth remembering.
But there is more to his legacy than that. There were other Alien movies, other non-Alien movies, and yes, the coulda been a contender Dune project. He did iconic album covers (Debbie Harry's Koo Koo) and created the infamous insert that came with the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist. And always more paintings, sculptures and other art projects. I won't say that Giger was everywhere when I was growing up, but you were always aware that he was out there, doing something dark and brilliant.

Giger was born in Switzerland in 1940, and it's in Switzerland that you can find the H.R. Giger Museum, in a medieval castle (Chateau St. Germain) in Gruyeres. The museum houses a great deal of Giger's artwork, and has what surely must be one of the coolest bars in the world. I don't even drink, and I still think the bar alone is worth a trip to Switzerland.
Like some mad genetic combination of the otherworldly visions of H.P. Lovecraft and some of the showmanship of William Castle, H.R. Giger was unique, frightening, monstrous and marvelous. The fact that so much of what he created is now ubiquitous is a testament to his talents. His death is our loss, but his creations are still out there, giving incredible nightmares and inspirations to an entirely new generation.

Monday, May 5, 2014

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (2013) - A Review
This documentary is a monument to that which never was - a sprawling film version of Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune, that was to have been directed by the passionate and insanely creative Alejandro Jodorowsky. And he, of course, is the writer/director who blew a great many people's minds in the 1970s with his films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) - both of which were commercial and cult successes.
Dune was going to be his follow-up to those, and Jodorowsky (who hadn't even read the book, mind you) envisioned creating an epic film with a spiritual core and message. As he explains in this documentary, he was aiming to literally change the world, and to give audience members the equivalent of an LSD trip, but without the drugs.

To create this world-changing epic, Jodorowsky personally gathered around him a pretty amazing cast and crew - causing worlds to collide if nothing else. For work behind the camera, he enlisted H.R. Giger (the Swiss artist who designed the alien in 1979's Alien), and young American Dan O'Bannon (who would later write Alien and write and direct 1985's Return of the Living Dead), and the famous French artist Jean Giraud (AKA Moebius), among others. In addition, the bands Pink Floyd and Magma were set to do music for the film.
His cast included David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Udo Kier, Salvador Dali, and Dali's then companion, the model/actress Amanda Lear. Jodorowsky also cast his son Brontis in the film - a move that required the boy to take two years of martial arts lessons to prepare for his role.
With his cast and crew of "warriors" in place, and with the production designed and laid out in a book (with all the shots sketched out in thousands of illustrations), Jodorowsky and his French producer Michel Seydoux set out to find the money to actually make the film...
...And couldn't find a studio willing to back them. Despite the fact that everyone seems to have been impressed with the idea and the people involved, and despite the fact that Jodorowsky's previous films had been hits, it seems that having him attached to the film as director made people nervous. This film was going to be a huge undertaking, and they weren't sure this crazy Chilean would be able to get it done. Jodorowsky seems not to have helped his case by telling the studio people, who wanted a 90 minute finished film, that he might make a film "twelve hours long, twenty hours long." Oops.
Thus, what might have been great, was instead...lost. A few years later, Star Wars (1977) came along and opened the door for big, hit space epics. And, of course, a decade after the studios turned down Jodorowsky for being too out-there, Universal Studios finally made a film of Dune (1984) - and picked the very out-there David Lynch to write and direct it. The film was a commercial and critical disaster. Oops again.
So now we have the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, which gives a taste of what might have been. From all available evidence, it almost certainly would have been better than Lynch's attempt, and given Jodorowsky's (then) hip, underground cred, his fabulous international cast and crew, and the film market in the 1970s...It might have been a hit. Would it have changed the world? Who knows? But it's a shame we didn't get the chance to find out.

If you love films, or are interested in the business of making films, then this documentary should hold a great deal to interest you. If you just love a great story, or tales of lost loves, then this film should have even more appeal for you. Even now, years later, and in his mid-80s, Jodorowsky is obviously still passionate about this idea, the one that got away. As someone who admires much of his work, I was very excited when I heard about this documentary, and it did not disappoint.
Hopefully this documentary will also serve as something of an appetizer for Jodorowsky's new film, The Dance of Reality (2013), which is his first film in over two decades. Until that one hits town, I will savor the delight provided by this film, and revisit his 1989 masterpiece, Santa Sangre, which remains one of my favorite films of all time.