Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS (1970) - A Review
Or, in a sense, The Purge for two, in a film that is really just one joke played out in multiple ways.

The set up is simple. George Kellerman (Jack Lemmon) has to fly from the Midwest to New York for a job interview. His wife, Gwen (Sandy Dennis), goes with him. And from the moment their plane lifts off, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Rerouted landings, missing luggage, missed trains, canceled room reservations, a transit strike and a garbage collectors strike, crooks, conmen and a really big dog - these are but a few of the things to plague the unlucky couple.
So yes, it's one joke, offered up in a variety of ways, for an hour and a half. In most cases, this would probably be a fairly effective recipe for boring or annoying an audience. But in this case, with the truly great Jack Lemmon in the lead, the film manages to be funny nearly all the way through, as Lemmon does a feature film-length slow burn, before finally melting down completely. His comic skills save the day, and elevate the script (by Neil Simon) to a higher level. (He had already done this same trick a few years earlier, in 1967, in Simon's The Odd Couple - a DVD of which I picked up just this weekend at a thrift shop.) I personally think that a little Neil Simon goes a long way, and I fail to completely understand his sterling reputation as a writer. But this is a case of "It's the singer, not the song," as Jack Lemmon tucks into the simmering fury of the ever more frustrated George Kellerman.

Further adding to the fingernails on the chalkboard fun is Sandy Dennis. A nasal, toothy presence, she adds immeasurably to the aggravation Lemmon's character is visibly feeling every time she whines his name - "George." Though in the end she manages to maintain her composure better than Lemmon, it's only because he has to bear up under everything she is also experiencing, while also bearing up under her. And, while she may not get as many laughs as Lemmon does, she does manage to perfectly nail several laugh lines, including one or two ("Oh my god, the children!") that aren't necessarily, in and of themselves, that funny, save for her delivery.
I would never call this a great film, but it does offer a fairly choice leading role to the great Jack Lemmon, who more than makes the most of it, ably supported by Sandy Dennis. It's no stone cold comedy classic, but you could certainly do much worse than this for entertainment. (Say, for example, watching the remake of this? Hmmm?)

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.

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.