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Month: May 2013

Hearts of the West (1975)

Hearts of the West (1975)

“There’s no such thing as wasted time for the writer; he’s always thinking.”

Hearts of the West Poster

Synopsis:
An aspiring western writer (Jeff Bridges) accidentally steals money from a pair of crooks (Richard B. Shull and Anthony James) running a sham correspondence school in Nevada, and escapes to Hollywood, where he finds work as an actor for a skinflint producer (Alan Arkin), falls for a pretty script girl (Blythe Danner), and receives advice from a grizzled performer (Andy Griffith).

Genres:

Review:
This humorous tale of an innocent Iowa farmboy fleeing from the clutches of villainous crooks and landing smack-dab in the middle of Depression-Era Hollywood remains a hidden treasure, one film fanatics will be pleased to discover. Bridges’ “Lewis Tater” is eminently likable: we care about his travails from the moment we first see him acting out a western scene playing in his head, and talking earnestly to whoever will listen about the craft of writing. He refuses to let any obstacles get in his way, instead viewing whatever happens to him — and my, quite a bit happens! — as welcome fodder for his prose. Director Howard Zieff and screenwriter Rob Thompson affectionately evoke the milieu of ’30s Western matinees, taking us behind the scenes to expose the business side of this kiddie-fantasy world, complete with both fond camaraderie and bitter bargaining. All supporting actors on board — Arkin, Danner, Griffith, and others — give fine performances, rounding out this consistently enjoyable coming-of-age tale, which never takes itself too seriously (viz. the comedic omnipresence of Shull and James, complete with their own theme music), yet maintains an unexpected level of poignancy throughout.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jeff Bridges as Lewis Tater
    Hearts of the West Bridges
  • Andy Griffith as Howard Pike
    Hearts of the West Griffith
  • A fun look at film-making in old (young?) Hollywood
    Hearts of the West Old Hollywood
  • Excellent period sets
    Hearts of the West Sets
  • Rob Thompson’s smart, affectionate screenplay

Must See?
Yes. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book — a perfect designation.

Categories

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Finian’s Rainbow (1968)

Finian’s Rainbow (1968)

“Things are indeed hopeless. Hopeless! But they’re not serious.”

Finian's Rainbow Poster

Synopsis:
An Irishman named Finian (Fred Astaire) and his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark) arrive in the American state of “Miltucky” with a pot of gold which Finian has stolen from a leprechaun (Tommy Steele), intending to bury it in the ground and accelerate its growth; meanwhile, a local dreamer (Don Francks) collaborates with a botanist (Al Freeman, Jr.) to create mentholated tobacco, and a bigoted, greedy senator (Keenan Wynn) is turned into a black man while attempting to buy the land where Finian has planted his pot of gold.

Genres:

  • Fantasy
  • Francis Ford Coppola Films
  • Fred Astaire Films<
  • Keenan Wynn Films
  • Leprechauns
  • Musicals
  • Racism

Review:
Early in his career, Francis Ford Coppola directed this adaptation of a popular Broadway musical (first produced in 1947, and revived in 2009) featuring an unusual mixture of light-hearted fantasy and some fairly trenchant social justice concerns — including racial bigotry, poverty, and political corruption. Indeed, these “hot button” topics apparently prevented the musical from being turned into a film for many years, until the social climate of the ’60s finally allowed for such concerns to be satirized head-on. The end result is a sporadically entertaining but ultimately uneven and over-long musical which tries to incorporate too many narrative strands, and never really reconciles its multiple foci. For instance, there’s a clever subplot in which Clark accidentally wishes Wynn (whose character is based on this real-life politician) could experience life as a black man, and the wish is made manifest — but we don’t see enough of how this impacts Wynn’s world-view; his storyline is treated on merely a surface level, and only occasionally makes an appearance in the remainder of the narrative. Freeman is hilarious in an early key scene as he kowtows to his new employer (Wynn), emulating the type of slow-moving black man Wynn assumes he should be — but this, too, goes no further than a single interaction. Meanwhile, a mute character named Susan the Silent (played by ballerina Barbara Hancock) flits throughout the proceedings, and eventually plays an important role in the denouement, but remains a cypher in every other way.

The performances are a mixed bag as well: it’s always a treat to see Astaire dancing on screen (he’s still sprightly at the age of 69), and he’s nicely cast here as the mischievous Finian; but Steele is ultimately overbearing as Og the Leprechaun (he’ll get on your nerves), and Clark’s primary selling point is her incomparable voice (she seems a bit old for the part, and doesn’t project quite enough charisma for such a central role; compare her performance with that of Janet Munro in Darby O’Gill and the Little People for an effective study in contrasts). The musical score is a winner (you’re guaranteed to be humming the theme song — “Look to the Rainbow” — for days after the film is over), and Coppola does a nice job bringing at least some of the action and dancing to real-life settings (as during the opening sequences, filmed in Napa Valley). But this one ultimately isn’t successful enough to recommend as must-see to anyone but diehard musical fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Astaire and Clark dancing to “Look to the Rainbow”
    Finian's Rainbow Dance
  • Al Freeman, Jr. as Howard
    Finian's Rainbow Freeman Jr
  • Fine Technicolor cinematography
    Finian's Rainbow Technicolor
  • Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Wings (1927)

Wings (1927)

“Jack Powell had always longed to fly… In every day-dream he heard the whir of wings.”

Wings Poster

Synopsis:
Two aspiring aviators (Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen) in love with the same girl (Jobyna Ralston) become buddies when they join the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I; meanwhile, Rogers’ neighbor (Clara Bow) — who harbors an unrequited crush on him — travels to France and attempts to keep an eye on him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “grand-scale silent classic” — directed by “former pilot William A. Wellman”, and winner of the first “Best Production” Academy Award — is “known for some truly spectacular dogfight sequences”, as well as “some amazing stunt work and aerial photography”. He points out that the “picture is beautifully filmed throughout” — particularly “Wellman’s revolutionary boom shot at the Paris cafe in which his camera zooms over several tables into a close shot of the drunk Rogers and Arlen with some French trollops” — and notes that “the sweeping final battle — on land and in air — is remarkable!” He argues that the “film’s major problem is that… the leads have little screen presence”, and that “today the film seems a little slow — but the brutality seen in the impressive war sequences keeps it timely”. In his Alternate Oscars book, Peary reigns back his enthusiasm a bit further, asserting that Wings “pales in comparison with [F.W. Murnau’s] Sunrise” (which won an Academy Award for best “Artistic Quality”), as well as King Vidor’s “The Crowd and Charles Chaplin’s unnominated The Circus;” he argues that the film has “dated badly” given its “weak [lead] performances, an overly peppy Clara Bow, and long flight sequences in which you can’t tell friend from foe”.

Actually, the points made in both of Peary’s assessments ring true. While the storyline itself remains as simplistic and cliched as that found in (far too) many silent films, Wellman’s overall craftmanship can’t be denied — and the aerial sequences are undeniably stunning. Knowing that all the stunts and effects were achieved in real life (no CGI to fall back on!), one simply marvels at the audacity of both Wellman’s vision and his intrepid crew (Rogers and Arlen actually learned to fly); viewing the 35-minute “making of” documentary on the recently restored DVD version of the film gives added insights into exactly how risky (and innovative) much of the filming was. Meanwhile, the non-aerial battle scenes are just as impressive, and rival those found in King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925). Regarding the lead actors, I actually find Rogers’ performance adequately charismatic, and handsome Arlen’s appropriately subdued (especially given that he’s holding onto a powerful secret the entire time); poor Bow’s character is simply put through the ringer — but so it goes, I suppose, when you’ll do anything for your man.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Truly amazing aerial camerawork
    Wings Aerial
  • The impressively shot battle sequences
    Wings Battle
  • Fine overall direction by Wellman
    Wings Direction

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance and for its still-stunning aerial sequences.

Categories

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Terminal Island (1973)

Terminal Island (1973)

“Everybody on this island’s a killer.”

Terminal Island Poster

Synopsis:
On an island where convicted murderers are sent to live and die, a new female arrival (Ena Hartman) quickly learns that its inhabitants are divided between those who support a ruthless psychopath (Sean Kenney), and those attempting to live a more democratic existence.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
I had reasonably high hopes for this “futuristic low-budget action adventure” flick, given both the slyly subversive nature of director Stephanie Rothman’s other female-centric exploitation films (i.e., Group Marriage) and the cleverness of the film’s opening “man on the street” news sequence (which neatly synopsizes its futuristic premise). Unfortunately, the story quickly devolves into a tedious survival flick in which impossibly beautiful female prisoners (all clad in skin-tight jeans, and sporting impeccably managed hair) either bed or battle a host of diversely macho men. The one exception to this latter category is Tom Selleck’s gentle “Dr. Milford”, notoriously sent to the island for conducting a mercy killing; it’s too bad his semi-interesting character is quickly forgotten in favor of endless scenes of bloody violence. Analogies to Lord of the Flies are inevitable, but despite Peary’s claim that it remains “interesting… because of [its] feminist-humanist themes” (and the fact that “the women and men renegades… shar[e] in the action, the danger, the plotting of war strategy”), its disappointing screenplay — which “deals with a civil war for supremacy of the island” — comes nowhere close to effectively exploring this inherently provocative premise. Peary’s a big fan of this one, but I’m not.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The clever, scene-setting opening sequence
    Terminal Island Opening

Must See?
No; only fans of Rothman’s work — or WIP (women-in-prison) flicks — need bother seeking this one out.

Links:

Broadway Melody, The (1929)

Broadway Melody, The (1929)

“Those men aren’t going to pay ten bucks to look at your face; this is Broadway!”

Broadway Melody Poster

Synopsis:
A songwriter (Charlie King) helps his girlfriend (Bessie Love) and her sister (Anita Page) break into show business on Broadway — but King’s sudden declaration of love for Page (which they keep secret from Love) prompts Page into a dangerous dalliance with a sleazy socialite (Kenneth Thomson).

Genres:

Review:
This creaky backstage melodrama will forever hold a special place in cinematic history given its status as the first all-talking musical, the first sound film to win a Best Picture Oscar, the first film featuring a sequence (“Wedding of the Painted Doll”) shot to pre-recorded music, and the source of several familiar musical numbers (“You Were Meant for Me”, “You Are My Lucky Star”) given new life in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Unfortunately, the storyline itself — a tired tale of (somewhat) talentless Broadway hopefuls navigating the lecherous waters of show business — leaves much to be desired; we’ve seen this basic narrative play out far too many times since then. At least the central romantic conflict — in which Page and King suddenly, mutually, and for no apparent reason realize they’re in love/lust with one another, but fear hurting the person they both care deeply about — is provided with some added emotional weight given Love’s spunky performance; and the “big reveal” scene, in which Love learns the truth about her sister and fiance, is appropriately lauded. But the rest of the film shows clear evidence of its age, with relatively static camera work (though to be fair, it’s better than many other “filmed plays” of the era) and several awkwardly handled dramatic moments.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bessie Love as Hank (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
    Broadway Melody Love

Must See?
Yes, once, but simply for historical reasons. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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What Price Glory (1926)

What Price Glory (1926)

“There’s something rotten about a world that’s got to be wet down every thirty years with the blood of boys like those.”

What Price Glory Poster

Synopsis:
Two rivalrous Marines — Sgt. Quirt (Edmund Lowe) and Captain Flagg (Victor McLaglen) — compete for the affections of a beautiful French girl (Dolores del Rio) on the eve of World War I.

Genres:

Review:
Raoul Walsh directed this first cinematic adaptation of Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings’ play, which was filmed again in 1952 by John Ford with James Cagney in the lead. Perhaps best known as the silent film which rewards careful lip-readers with evidence of spoken profanity not indicated on the title cards themselves (!), it tells an overly simplistic tale of macho rivalry (Lowe and McLaglen’s tussle over del Rio is preceded by similar conflicts with other women) set against the backdrop of World War I. Unfortunately, there’s not really enough to the story or the characters to sustain modern viewers’ interest, and the humor comes across as overly broad. While the battle scenes are impressively shot, film fanatics hoping to see a more engaging treatment of World War I in a silent film would be better off watching King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) or William Wellman’s Wings (1927).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The powerfully filmed wartime sequences
    What Price Glory Wartime

Must See?
No, though it will likely be of interest to fans of Walsh’s work.

Links:

Seventh Heaven (1927)

Seventh Heaven (1927)

“Never look down; always look up!”

7th Heaven Poster

Synopsis:
A French prostitute (Janet Gaynor) browbeaten by her abusive sister (Gladys Brockwell) finds comfort and transformation in the arms of a streetcleaner (Charles Farrell) — but when World War I descends, Farrell enlists and the newly married couple must sustain their love from afar.

Genres:

Review:
In Alternate Oscars, Peary argues that Janet Gaynor’s popularity both “with the public and within the industry” helped land her the first ever Best Actress Academy Award, for “three good [but not great] performances” in 1927-28 — including her role here as a downtrodden young waif whose life is redeemed by a charitable former “sewer rat”. Despite solid direction by Frank Borzage, nice use of Expressionistic sets, and Gaynor’s sympathetic lead performance, the film unfortunately hasn’t aged all that well — primarily due to its overly simplistic storyline (based on a popular Broadway play), which doesn’t really have anywhere interesting to go once Gaynor is rescued from her sorry plight — speaking of which, Brockwell is a caricature of Evil rather than a three-dimensional character — and the young couple realize they’re in love. The imminence of World War I makes for a convenient narrative hitch — but Gaynor and Farrell’s promise to “come to each other” at 11:00 each day is simply sappy, and the utterly unrealistic ending will have your eyes rolling. Ultimately, this one is only must-see for diehard enthusiasts of silent films, and/or Oscar completists.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Janet Gaynor as Diane
    7th Heaven Gaynor
  • Lovely Expressionist sets
    7th Heaven Sets

Must See?
No, though it will be of interest to fans of Borzage, silent films, and/or Oscar winners. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Three Musketeers, The (1948)

Three Musketeers, The (1948)

“To die among friends; can a man ask for more?”

Three Musketeers Poster

Synopsis:
An aspiring musketeer (Gene Kelly) in 17th century France joins veteran musketeers Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young), and Aramis (Robert Coote) in their efforts to protect Queen Anne (Angela Lansbury) against the evil intentions of Richelieu (Vincent Price) and his henchwoman, Lady de Winter (Lana Turner).

Genres:

Review:
Fans of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling classic will likely be the primary audience for this colorful literary adaptation, produced by MGM Studios and starring a host of big names in key roles — most notably Gene Kelly, who was excited about the opportunity to recreate the role (D’Artagnan) originally inhabited by his idol, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. There’s plenty of intrigue in the plotting-rich narrative, and those already familiar with the basic storyline and characters in Dumas’ serialized novel will fare best at puzzling out exactly what’s going on, and who’s attempting to do what to whom (and why); if you’re at all distracted while watching, however, you may find yourself a bit lost at times — though it’s never anything but clear who are the good guys/ladies (this group includes June Allyson as D’Artagnan’s instant beloved, Constance) versus the bad guys (guess which side Vincent Price falls on?). Personally, I find the production both overly comedic (Kelly’s performance in particular borders on clownish-ness) and far too melodramatic (Kelly and Allyson’s romance is never anything less than full-throttle — complete with overly strategic use of the infamous melody “Hearts and Flowers” whenever they’re together).

Note: Van Heflin gives the most impassioned and nuanced performance in the film, playing Athos with an appropriate level of brooding; whenever he’s on screen, one can’t help becoming absorbed in the story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Van Heflin as Athos
    Three Musketeers Heflin
  • Lovely Technicolor cinematography
    Three Musketeers Cinematography
    Three Musketeers Cinematography2

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for fans of the book or the genre.

Links:

Tumbleweeds (1925)

Tumbleweeds (1925)

“The only land I’ll settle down on will be under a tombstone.”

Tumbleweeds Poster

Synopsis:
A rancher (William S. Hart) hoping to stake a claim in a land run and then marry his sweetheart (Barbara Bedford) is falsely accused by Bedford’s nefarious brother (Richard R. Neill) of being a ‘sooner’, and imprisoned just as the run is about to start; will he get out in time to claim his new property?

Genres:

Review:
Stoic performer William S. Hart was among the most popular and beloved stars of the silent western era (he acted in no less than 75 films, and directed 53) — though most modern film fanatics are likely unfamiliar with his work or his presence. This title was the last film Hart made before retiring, and is generally considered one of the best in its genre; it’s based upon the classic western trope of ranchers versus settlers, but given added gravitas due to being situated within a specific historical time and place, the 1893 Cherokee Strip Land Run in Oklahoma (also immortalized on screen in both the 1931 and the 1960 versions of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron). The film itself doesn’t offer many surprises — other than the fact that Hart’s character isn’t entirely pure and good (he’s not above breaking the law when necessary) — but it’s finely paced and directed, and short enough (at just 78 minutes) to hold one’s attention throughout.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography
    Tumbleweeds Cinematography
  • The impressive land run sequence
    Tumbleweeds Land Grab

Must See?
Yes, simply to see iconic western star William S. Hart in one of his better films.

Categories

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Working Girls, The (1974)

Working Girls, The (1974)

“Hired? For what? I don’t even know what business you’re in!”

Working Girls Poster

Synopsis:
An itinerant blonde (Sarah Kennedy) arrives in Los Angeles and is given a place to stay by a sign painter (Laurie Rose) whose roommate (Lynne Guthrie) works as a waitress in a strip club. After turning the tables on a woman (Mary Beth Hughes) who’s hired her to knock off her husband, Kennedy accepts an offer by an eccentric businessman (Solomon Sturges) to be his conversation-partner; meanwhile, Guthrie dates a mobster (Mark Thomas) while moving up the career ladder at her job by both stripping and looking after the club when its manager (Gene Elman) is on vacation; and Rose falls for an itinerant singer (Ken Del Conte) who’s secretly a jewel fence.

Genres:

Review:
Stephanie Rothman’s final film as a director was this lighthearted exploitation flick about a trio of sexy young women seeking love, jobs, friendship, and independence in Los Angeles. As in Rothman’s previous female-centric films (The Student Nurses and Group Marriage), the protagonists here possess a strong feminist sensibility, demonstrating their ability to survive and thrive in a male-dominated universe by sticking together and supporting one another unconditionally — i.e., Rose immediately offers Kennedy a free place to stay; Kennedy willingly allows Rose to “steal” her one-night-stand (Ken Del Conte) as her lover; a colleague (Cassandra Peterson) teaches Guthrie the tricks of the stripping trade; etc. Meanwhile, Kennedy — who initially strikes one as merely a “dumb blonde” — quickly flouts our expectations by demonstrating a strong sense of logic and head for business. While its weak ensemble storyline ultimately makes this one of Rothman’s lesser efforts, it’s certainly worth a look by followers of slyly subversive feminist cinema.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Good use of authentic L.A.-area locales
    Working Girls Beach

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

Links: