Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Enemy of the State" (1998) Dir: Tony Scott



I have been very out there and vocal about my love for “The Conversation”, a film I have considered in my top 5 without wavering. That top 5 is, of course:
“Vertigo", “Chinatown", "Citizen Kane", "The Conversation" and "Barton Fink". What, you might ask, are the criteria to make it to such a lofty and exulted place as Wayne’s top 5 films of ALL TIME? 

Here goes:
1) They must be entertaining as hell
2) They must not have any lagging or dull moments
3) They must deal with a subject that I find fascinating
4) There must be elements of humor, no matter how weighty the subject matter
5) They must have hit an emotional chord for me
6) They must have some very original stylistic and visual elements
7) They must have provided some kind of transformative moment for me
8) The performances and dialogue have to all be spot on…no crappy miscasting
9) The music must not overpower the film, or inappropriately work against it
10) There can be no moments of anachronism or other unbelievable elements that pull me out of the film
11) Apparently from the looks of the above list, no happy ending. 

Three movies on the top 5 of the AFI Top 100 that wouldn’t cut it with the above list:
“Gone With The Wind” (#4)- There are entire swaths of this film that bore the crap out of me. Sorry, Lisa (my wife adores this film).
“Casablanca” (#2)- I love it, but let’s face it, the camera does next to nothing of interest in this movie. Some nice lighting, but that’s it.
“Lawrence of Arabia” (#5)- See “Gone With The Wind”.
The other two are “Citizen Kane”, which is on my list and “The Godfather” which comes in at about 9 or 10 on my Top 100. “Vertigo” is their #61, and neither “The Conversation” or “Barton Fink” made the AFI list at all. 

Can I deal with this for a second? “Vertigo” is 61st? RUFKM? It’s behind “Dr. Zhivago” and “High Noon”? Sight and Sound has it at number one in THE WORLD! Have they even seen this film? Have you? If the answer is no, then stop reading this blog and go rent it RIGHT NOW. 

Anyway, I can understand “Barton Fink” not making the list. There are elements in all of the Coen Brothers’ films that are not universally beloved, but boy oh boy do they speak to me! In fact, some of their lesser films are the ones I love best, in particular this one, “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Serious Man”. I think if you are a baby boomer (I am), Jewish (I am) and/or in the Arts/Entertainment field (I am) then these films really connect. 

However, “The Conversation” having no place in the AFI Top 100 is a complete oversight. Coppola himself says it is his favorite, even more than either  Godfathers or “Apocalypse Now”. 

So why am I yammering on about “The Conversation”, you might ask (and aren’t you the inquisitive one today)? Because “Enemy of the State” is as close to a sequel as we are ever going to get. True, it is not directed or even produced by Francis Ford Coppola, but it does have Gene Hackman in basically the same role he played in “The Conversation”. Yes they changed his name, but there is no question we are dealing with the same subject matter, and an extrapolation of what might have happened to his character, Harry Call. Would it have been better if Coppola had helmed “Enemy of the State”? Maybe not; his efforts as a director since 1980 had fallen woefully short of his first decade, and maybe his spark was gone. Tony Scott would not have been my first or even 50th choice; in fact he made some of my least favorite movies, including “The Fan” and “Beverly Hills Cop II”. But he also directed this film and “True Romance” which I think is just about perfect. 

My memory is that “Enemy of the State” was great: action packed with some amazing chase scenes, and it tackled a very important subject— the limits of Government surveillance. The film gained stature in my memory after the events of 9/11 and the subsequent passing of the Patriot Act. They tackled this issue before it was really huge. I like that! Let’s see if 13 years after 9/11 it has the same resonance.


After re-watching:

 I'm not gonna sit in congress and pass a law that lets the government point a camera and a microphone at anything they damn well please. -Congressman Hammersley

PLOT SUMMARY
An NSA bigwig (Jon Voight) needs the votes of a Congressman (Jason Robards) and his cronies to pass a bill that extends the rights of the Agency to use satellites for surveillance of average Americans. The Congressman refuses, remaining steadfast in his concern for the rights of individuals. The bigwig has his honchos kill the Congressman, and then make it look like a car accident caused by drug abuse. Ironically, an environmental group has a camera installed at the scene which captures the entire proceedings. When the environmental watchdog views the tape, he realizes that he has this evidence, but the NSA does too, and chases him. In the course of this chase, he drops a memory card with the video in the shopping bag of an unwitting lawyer (Will Smith), who then becomes pursued and persecuted himself by the NSA gang. His only help in this adventure is an off-the-grid ex-surveillance expert named either Brill or Edward Lyle (Gene Hackman) who is ambivalent about being drawn into this situation.

STORY/THEME

Was this ahead of its time? I’ll say! And even though it’s now 16 years old, much of the technology is pretty cool: the 3D simulators, the satellite imaging, the various types of bugging devices et al. It really doesn’t seem dated except for the computer screens and lack of smartphones. 

Sadly, there are a bunch of elements that qualify for exclusion from number 10 on my must list above. That was the one that says you can’t have things in the film that are so inaccurate that they pull you out of it, saying to yourself “Wha? That shit ain’t right!” 

Here’s what ain’t right: Little Italy in Baltimore of 1998 is definitely NOT Little Italy in New York of 1955. The differences? Italian Social Clubs, which were the center of Mafia life in New York, were prevalent in New York’s Little Italy of the ’40’s through ’70’s. Little Italy of Baltimore in 1998 had virtually nothing to do with the mob. It’s just a bunch of crappy Italian Restaurants with bad food and no parking. Nowadays there’s a garage or two, but the food still stinks. And there’s NO MOB at all. You know how I know this? If the mob was there, the food would be AWESOME. In fact, I doubt very much if Italians have anything at all to do with Baltimore’s Little Italy. I’m going on record as saying that they are Greeks. I love Greek food, but they have no idea how to make Italian food.

 Robert Clayton Dean, the lawyer played by Will Smith, gets drawn into this situation not unlike the way Roger Thornhill from “North by Northwest” gets drawn into his…merely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here’s the thing; the NSA guys know he’s not involved in this conflict, that he’s merely a guy who got the video by happenstance, and yet they still find it necessary to trash his house, reputation, marriage and most importantly, credit rating. Instead of just bull-rushing him, why couldn’t they just say, “Hey man….that crazy dude we were chasing? He dropped something in your bag, and we need that shit. It’s for national security and whatnot”. I mean if it were me, I’d say, "yeah cool, what was it you were looking for?” End of problem. Basically, the whole film turns on a plot device that is more than a bit ridiculous. At least in “North By Northwest”, you can totally believe that James Mason and crew think Thornhill is lying, George Kaplan doesn’t really exist, but they don’t know that. 

One other little item that breaks my 10th Commandment, aka -Thou shalt not cause the audience to say out loud the words “No fucking way!”. 

The store in Dupont Circle where Dean is shopping when the Greenpeace guy drops the video in his bag is a Lingerie store; a store wherein all the shopping clerks are drop dead models wearing only the lingerie they sell. WHAT? In DC? First of all, the closest thing we have here to a “Lingerie Store” is Victoria’s Secret at the Pentagon Mall. The clerks there all look like Betty White. I say, “No fucking way!”.

But let’s get back to the theme, and what really is smart about “Enemy of the State”. The discussion that lingers about the NSA, The Patriot Act, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and our own personal safety at home is maybe one of the most important of the 21st Century. This is not the forum for me to expound on my feelings on this subject, but suffice to say that if you need to kill a Congressman to protect our people from terrorists, then there is a real priority issue here. How about we limit the availability of automatic weapons to Schizophrenics first? Make someone pass a Rorschach before they can buy a Kalishnikov. 

In this film, there is a line spoken by Hackman that goes “Fort Meade has 18 acres of mainframe computers underground. You’re talking to your wife on the phone and you use the word “bomb”, “president” , “Allah”, any of a hundred keywords, the computer recognizes it, automatically records it, red-flags it for analysis”. 1998, people! Three years before 9/11! That part of the film is very compelling, and it definitely adheres to Wayne’s 3rd commandment, “Thou shalt be about something fascinating”. 

FILMMAKING

You want action? You want pacing? You want chase scenes? Man, oh man this film has it all. It is relentless from the opening credits, and there is so much information, that you feel like you need to be a mainframe to process it. This is a good thing. 

I really enjoyed the chase scene when the Environmental guy (Jason Lee) is trying to escape from the NSA thugs. The cutting is fast, but not so breakneck that you can’t follow what’s happening. Plus the voice over sound mixing of the techie NSA guys tracking him, and the cutaways to the satellites and choppers are just right. They seem to be tapped into every surveillance camera in the area, and when Lee is not visible by satellite he is traceable in other ways. There’s no way he can disappear. The climax of that scene is devastating, and really well done. 

The other great chase scene comes when Dean is running through a tunnel (that I guess is supposed to be the Fort McHenry tunnel) and they keep finding him no matter how evasive his actions. 

The film's climax is straight out of the end of "True Romance". Two groups that had no idea they were at odds are pointing guns at each other, while our hero finds himself smack dab in the middle unarmed. And, as is the case with "True Romance" you pretty much hope that everyone EXCEPT our hero ends up dead. The tension in "Enemy" doesn't really get a chance to build as beautifully as it does in "True Romance". The Tarantino script just seems to have a better hold on this aspect of a thriller.

PERFORMANCES

Will Smith would certainly not be my first choice for a role of this kind. That being said, he does a fine job as the Hitchcock "Wrong Man" type, and adds just enough cleverness to offset the cluelessness. Would the film have been better with a more sharp-tongued edge at the center? Maybe, but I think that he pulls off playing a person to whom Lyle says a number of times “You are either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid”.

And how, you might ask (another question), was Hackman in his extrapolation of Harry Call 25 years later? Hackman always delivers that Hackman touch. He can be rude, abrasive, charming, funny, fierce and icy cold all within seconds of the other. Somehow, he makes it work.  

The rest of the cast is really deep, and really good. Listen to this list;
Besides the people I already mentioned (Smith, Hackman, Voight, Lee, Robards) how about Jack Black, Seth Green, Lisa Bonet, Barry Pepper, Gabriel Byrne, Anna Gunn, Phillip Baker Hall, Tom Sizemore, Regina King and Larry King (no relation…that’s a joke, people). 

So what? No room for Kevin Bacon in this flick?

On SECOND LOOK

How did “Enemy of the State” do in regards Wayne’s 11 Commandments? Pretty good on all counts except for 5, 7 and particularly 10. It definitely did not hit any emotional chord for me, nor did I find it transformative—I did not feel changed after watching this film. But many of my favorites also fall short in those categories. 
What’s good about this film is really good; the interesting subject matter, the pacing and action, the stylistic elements. What really is a problem for me are all the "no fucking way" moments, and at the heart of them, the actual motor that drives the story. The murder, cover-up, and persecution of an innocent just go too far for even my fevered imagination. 

And the most unbelievable thing of all? That there is a Congressman out there whose vote you can’t buy!

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭




Monday, November 3, 2014

"Dead of Night" (1945) Dir- Various



A Special Halloween On Second Look


What I recall:

This will be my “Treehouse of Horror” entry. That much loved series of episodes of "The Simpsons” is usually told in 3 or so slightly related tales, all spooky. “Dead of Night” was possibly the first movie to attempt this feat. I can recall about 4 of the episodes, but I am sure there are a bunch more. 

Two of them are definitely recreated in “The Twilight Zone” series. The famous Ventriloquist's dummy episode from the Zone that starred Cliff Robertson was positively based on the episode in “Dead of Night” starring Michael Redgrave. The other famous Zone episode that debuted herein was “Twenty Two”, also known by it’s most famous line: “Room for one more, honey.” 

Holy crap, that show creeped me out beyond words the first time I saw it. Sure there are some great Zone episodes, some total classics, some really hilarious episodes, some really poignant ones. But by far the creepiest stay with you. For me it’s; “Twenty-Two”, Shatner with the Airplane Gremlin, and “The Howling Man”, which was based on a Roald Dahl story. I’m not saying they were my favorites, but they definitely terrified me. Funny, if you look at that Gremlin now, it looks like it’s wearing a clown outfit that went absurdly wrong. All I know is it gave me nightmares as a pre-teen.

When I found out that “Dead of Night” was responsible for “Twenty-Two” and maybe a few other Twilight Zone stories, I knew I had to see it. 

So it’s British, right? That means the horror will be understated, subtle, intelligent and well acted. I can go for that. What I remember was that this truly was the case, and that the way they tied the different stories together was really interesting and fun. It was a bit uneven, for sure…not a classic of the genre, but really original in concept and execution. 

Oohhh…execution. A creepy word. 

I know I watched this with my wife back in the ’80’s. She, too, is a big fan of the Zone, and also of “Twenty-Two”. I believe that “A Stop at Willoughby” is her favorite. Remember that one? With the harried commuter who keeps seeing this beautiful small town on his daily train, even though there’s no actual stop for it? If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. Yet. 

Bwaahhahahahaha!

After re-watching:

“Well, when it comes to foreseeing the future, something once happened to me that knocks your theories into a cocked hat. Something I’ll not forget to my dying day. As a matter of fact, it very nearly was my dying day!”-- Hugh Grainger

PLOT SUMMARY
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is an architect who has been called to spend the weekend at a country farmhouse in order to consult with its owners, The Foleys, on rebuilding their  house. Upon his arrival, he gets struck with the sensation of deja vu, and becomes aware that he has met all the people in the house in a dream. This recurring dream, he soon realizes turns into a nightmare eventually. One of the guests, a Dr. Von Straaten (Frederick Valk) is skeptical, and has a scientific explanation for Craig’s feelings. As the day progresses, events that Craig has predicted from his dream start becoming reality. At the same time, it turns out that each of the other guests has had some experience with the paranormal, and they relate these tales in episodic fashion.

STORY/THEME

Strange that Ealing Studios would be the source of a film that you would more likely associate with Hammer. Ealing was well known and loved for it’s comedies like “The Lavender Hill Mob”. Yet the chilling premise of this film is handled very expertly, as if the Studio had been churning these out for years. 

Anthologies are not my favorite form of storytelling. I always feel like I am getting cheated out of depth of character and plot. At 103 minutes, “Dead of Night” doesn’t give you a lot of that. 
There are basically 5 tales. Besides the over-running plot line of deja vu, each of the other tales is told by a guest at the house. 

The first is told by ex race car driver Anthony Baird (Hugh Grainger). This is our original version of “Twenty Two”. In this case, it’s a wide awake dream from his hospital room while recovering from a racing accident. Though it’s bedtime, and his radio is playing, it suddenly grows very quiet. The radio fades out, the clock stops ticking, and outside birds tweet. He goes to the window, and parts the drapes to see that it is daytime, and there is a horse-drawn hearse below. The driver smiles and says, “Just room for one inside, sir.”  I guess you can figure how the rest of it goes….instead of a plane, it’s a bus that goes over the bridge, with our friend the hearse driver as the ticket taker. It’s a great story, but if you are familiar with the Twilight Zone version, you pretty much know what’s coming. 

Young Sally (a 15 year old Sally Ann Howes) follows with a classic ghost story. She is playing a version of “Hide and Seek” at a Christmas party in an old house that she has been told by another child is haunted. Of course she stumbles upon a room and a crying child. Since all the children are in costumes, it isn’t remarkable to Sally that the child is in period dress from the 1860’s. He tells her he is scared of his half-sister, Constance. Later Sally finds out that there was a child murdered in that very house, a Frances Kent murdered by his sister Constance. In 1860. What’s actually strange here, is that this is a real case from UK history, and the names were not changed. So much for the disclaimer about "any resemblance blah blah blah.” This would be like you meeting a kid called Bobby Franks in a house in Chicago, and him telling you that he’s scared of these two High School students he knows, named Leopold and Loeb.
This story is probably the weakest of the 5, and maybe the most transparent. There is certainly no surprise for the audience in finding out that Frances was a ghost. 

The 3rd story I did not recall, and it’s really well done. Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) tells of when she bought an antique mirror for her fiancĂ©, Peter (Ralph Michael, looking a bit like Clifton Webb). When Peter looks in the mirror, he sees a different room completely than his own. He begins acting strangely, and eventually he becomes jealous and angry. Suffice to say that something awful happened in that room, and he begins to take on the personality of the inhabitant.This episode is well shot and acted, and I found it quite suspenseful. 

The 4th is a bit of comic relief from a very popular comedy team of the era, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. These were the two guys who were obsessed with the Cricket scores in “The Lady Vanishes”, even at the risk of their own safety. They were also in “Night Train to Munich” in similar fashion. In “Dead of Night” they are obsessed golfers, in love with the same woman, who decide to play a game wherein the winner gets the woman’s hand in marriage, and the loser disappears. Radford wins by cheating, and upon losing, Wayne actually walks into the water hazard and drowns. He begins to haunt Radford when the afterlife informs him that Radford cheated. There are a couple of laugh out loud moments in the “Topper” tradition, but certainly nothing new here. I do love the British tradition of watching a guy do something very silly he thinks nobody can see, and then having another character walk in on this. 

Our 5th story is clearly the strongest and most chilling, if maybe the least original. It’s told by the skeptical Dr. Von Straaten. Yes, it’s the ventriloquist dummy with a mind of it’s own. Wasn’t there also a movie with Anthony Hopkins called “Magic” that used this gimmick? And I know there was a silent film by Erch Von Stroheim called “The Great Gabbo” that preceded this. Hmm…Von Straaten. Von Stroheim. An homage, perhaps? I wonder if the director of “Greed” ever tried to get some money from Ealing for their appropriation of his work.

 Anyway, this little story was beautifully realized and perfectly acted by Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, who’s dummy Hugo is an evil little bastard, ready to dump him at the first sign of another ventriloquist. Hugo has got this high-pitched whiny voice, thus making him even more evil than he looks. Which makes me wonder….why is it that dummies are so evil looking? Aren’t they supposed to be funny? I mean, even Knucklehead Smith gave me the willies. And Charlie McCarthy? An Irishman with a monocle and top hat? TERRRRRifying. Forget clowns, people. Dummies. (Shudder).

FILMMAKING

Some neat tricks are used by our team of directors. Ealing flagship director Robert Hamer, helmed “The Haunted Mirror” episode, and did some nice work with the reflections and camera movement. The trickery reminded me of Magritte, more than a little. 

Brazilan born Alberto Cavalcanti, who directed “The Christmas Party" and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” later on teamed up with Sally Ann Howes again in an adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby”. Obviously his work in the Dummy story was the highlight of this film. The camera angles and lighting are particularly effective. And he got just the right amount of movement from the dummy…just enough to make him seem like he had his own mind. He does some nice work in the ghost story too; particularly the contrast between the action and mayhem of the kids playing games and the silence and seclusion of the little murdered boy’s room.

Charles Crichton, another Ealing man, directed the Golf story, and his humorous bent and timing make it work. The man who helmed “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “A Fish Called Wanda” 37 years apart had quite a career, it turns out. Lots of TV, but also a co-directing spot for “The Birdman of Alcatraz”. 

The “Hearse Driver” and the Architect’s dream were directed by Basil Dearden. He does a great job at creating the eerie atmosphere, and also the really dry and subtle end of the film. I enjoyed the transition in the hospital room from noisy nighttime to silent day. Sound and picture together work to form a very seamless transformation. Ironically, Dearden himself died in an auto accident. I guess he wasn’t given the same warning as Baird. Or maybe he was, and was skeptical like Von Straaten.

PERFORMANCES

Most of the heavy lifting is done by Redgrave, with a bit of help by Googie Withers and Ralph Michael. The rest of the acting is pretty standard, and young Sally Ann Howes is maybe even a bit over her head, particularly when she realizes that she just hung out with a ghost, and repeats “I’m not frightened... I’m not frightened”, before collapsing into the arms of an older woman.
Radford and Wayne are exactly who they are, and their humor, while maybe a little antiquated, still gets the job done. 

Back to Redgrave, though. I didn’t remember him being this effective, but he is simply marvelous. When he is drunk at the bar, he resembles Hugo’s limp body almost more than the dummy. At the end of the episode, when the dummy has taken over his mind, his expressions are positively chilling. And the fact that the dummy’s voice comes out of this rictus of a mouth that doesn’t move, is truly horrifying. I think there is a bit of influence on the final scene of "Psycho" here. I'm sure Hitch had seen this film, and that last shot of Norman with his Mom's voice ("I wouldn't hurt a fly") is quite similar to Hugo's voice coming out of Frere's unmoving mouth. 
Even though it’s only about 20 minutes long, this version of the dummy from hell is the best I’ve seen, and it’s mostly thanks to Redgrave. 

ON SECOND LOOK

Despite the familiarity with it’s story lines and tropes, “Dead of Night” has a unique feel to it. The circular overriding narrative was apparently the inspiration for the guys who invented the Steady State model of the universe in 1948! The way the stories spring from this and the strength of the two scariest episodes make this a great and enjoyable watch. 

It's the funeral home's name! Willoughby! He's dead, you see? Oh, you knew, already? Spoiler spoiled!


On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭1/2






Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Used Cars" (1980) Dir- Robert Zemeckis



What I remember:

This was definitely a Skyy tour bus special. We probably watched this one almost as many times as "The Thing".  What I can't recall is whether Kurt Russell had already shed his Disney image or if this was the first film of his very successful reinvention. Regardless, Russell certainly went in a different direction with "Used Cars". His morally bankrupt, smooth talking character was refreshingly nasty; a true '80's anti-hero. What followed for Russell was a series of these types, usually with John Carpenter behind the lens. All of these characters had a touch of comic brilliance, even the most action-hero of them. In this film, however, Russell was pure comedy. 

"Used Cars" had a great supporting cast culled from TV comedy of the '60's and '70's, like David Landers and Michael McKean ( Lenny and Squiggy from "Laverne and Shirley"), Al Lewis (Grandpa fom "The Munsters) and Joe Flaherty (Count Floyd/ Guy Caballero from SCTV).

The best moments from this film are indelible: Jack Warden playing good/evil twins, Russell's ripoff sales pitches and, of course, Gerrit Graham's uproarious commercialus interruptus.  Thanks to that scene, whenever any of us in the band got a price from someone on ANYTHING, our immediate response was "That's too FUCKin' high!!!!"

My memory is that this was a top-notch comedy from the same people who a year later brought us the immensely popular "Back to the Future". I liked this movie far more than that universally loved icon of the '80's. Am I wrong? Should "Used Cars" be as forgotten as a rusted out Dodge Aries?

After rewatching:

"Marshall Lucky here for New Deal Used Cars, where we're lowering inflation not only by fighting high prices, not only by murdering high prices, but by blowing the living shit out of high prices!” - Jeff

PLOT SUMMARY:

The Fuchs brothers (Jack Warden) own competing used car lots across a highway in Arizona. Luke Fuchs’ New Deal Used Cars is a scrupulously run lot with some unscrupulous salesmen, headed by Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell). Roy L. Fuchs has a more mainstream lot but is far more scurrilous. He has been informed that a new highway bypass will land right in his lot, making it useless, while making New Deal very visible and without competition. Luke, who has heart trouble, won’t sell his lot, so  Roy L. decides to cause Luke to have a heart attack by hiring a stunt driver to take him out on a wild test drive. Rudy wants to fund his Senate campaign, and will be out of work and unable to raise that money unless he convinces everyone that Luke is still alive. Things get even more problematic when Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Fuchs arrives, unaware that her father is dead.

STORY/THEME:

Well that does’t sound like much of a comedy, does it? I guess therein lies the rub….there is much in this comedy that really isn’t suitable for comic exploitation. Actually, I know it doesn’t seem like it should be this way, but Luke Fuch’s death scene is one of the funniest moments in the film. After his wild ride with the demolition derby stunt driver, Luke stumbles out of the car clutching his chest. In the office, Rudy and a prospective car buyer (Al Duncan- that guy who was the play-by play guy in “Slap Shot”) are arguing over a price, and the client keeps repeating “50 bucks never killed anybody.” Rudy goes out to the lot and says “My boss will have a stroke when he sees this deal”, and seconds later Luke barrels in, clutching his chest and gasping. The scene is well cut, and while it was common to have a laugh at the death of a bad guy or buffoon, it was and is still rare to chuckle at the demise of a nice guy. You feel a little soiled after the scene is over when you realize Luke is really dead.

Why am I going into such detail about this scene? I think it gets to the heart of the problem with “Used Cars”. In trying to capitalize on the ’70’s raunchy/iconoclastic comedy of films like “Animal House”, “Caddyshack” and “Stripes”, it misses the mark by being just a bit too mean-spirited. The truly funny moments are there, all right, and they are hilarious. There are also a lot of scenes that don’t work, and some other pretty unnecessarily politically incorrect moments. Manuel (Alfonso Arrau), the Mexican car supplier is particularly tasteless, grabbing his crotch and even our heroine’s breast at one point. Later there are some young black kids who argue with each other because they need to drive the only Cadillac on the lot. Frank MacRae plays Jim, the Mechanic, a black man who is constantly sleeping on the job with his blowtorch lit. 

That being said, let’s talk about the comedy that does work. The Marshall Lucky scene is, in my opinion, maybe the single funniest scene in this genre. The combination of Gerrit Graham’s delivery, the cross cutting to people watching the ad, and Rudy trying to prevent Barbara from seeing it is pure editing glory. Graham, as Jeff doing the Marshall Lucky bit, is marvelous in the scene, playing with a combination of bravado and shock that I’ve never seen duplicated. I’ve probably watched this scene 20 times, and to quote Beetlejuice, “It keeps getting’ funnier EVERY. SINGLE. TIME!” 

Of course, he was talking about “The Exorcist”, so maybe that’s not an appropriate quote.
Other than that scene, Luke’s death scene, and the first New Deal TV spot (with gratuitous nudity and some great Landers/McKean interplay), most of the humor is slapstick, with some big time car stunts and a wild brawl between Roy L. and Jeff. All the Used Car spiels by Russell are clever and well-delivered, but just not on the comic level of, say, Belushi’s moments in “Animal House” or Bill Murray’s off hand panache in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”. I did catch some nice tidbits thrown out there for us close watchers. There’s a statue of Elvis on Rudy’s dresser, which is absolutely a nod to Russell’s having just played The King in a movie the year prior. Also the first stripper one sees in the battle of the Car Lots is played by none other than Betty Thomas, a familiar face to all ’80’s pop culture as Lucy Bates from "Hill St. Blues”. Mark McLure, who played Jimmy Olsen in the ’80’s version of “Superman”, and the ubiquitous Miss Wendy Jo Sperber also show up in the Driver’s Ed car chase climax. 

FILMMAKING

Zemeckis and editor Michael Kahn deserve a ton of credit for the pacing of “Used Cars”, which is just about perfect. There are no lagging, slow bits, and just a slew of great cross-cutting and scene juxtaposition. Like “The Blues Brothers”, however, the film gets a little too bogged down in car stunts and sloppy fights. Don’t get me wrong, the action is well handled, so maybe I shouldn’t say “bogged down”. It might be better to say “carried away with”, or “obsessed”. I mean, after a while the movie starts to resemble an actual Demolition Derby. What I mean is, if you are over 6 years old it just stops being funny when cars keep smashing into each other and everything else over and over again. In "Animal House”, when the Delta float rams the grandstands, it’s something that they have been building up to resulting in a huge payoff.  For “Used Cars”, a little restraint might have made a difference in garnering bigger laughs along the way. 

As for the cinematography, it's shot fairly well by veteran Donald Morgan, in that ’80’s soft focus style I have discussed when referring to other films of the era like “Long Gone” and “The Stunt Man”. The location shots were on a real car lot on a real highway, which I am sure made many of the scenes problematic to pull off. The stunts are pretty spectacular, particularly the car jumping scene during the climactic chase, and the jumping freight train stunt. 

PERFORMANCES

What works: Russell's sleazy but good-hearted salesman. Graham’s womanizing, superstitious nut job. Anything Jack Warden does in any movie, but he is truly fantastic in this one. MacRae’s big foul-mouthed mechanic. Landers and McKean as the tech-happy geeks. 

What is a standout performance: Toby the dog. Yes, he steals this picture almost as much as Uggie the dog from “The Artist”. Toby comes across as smarter than anyone else in the film, and the dog is so well trained that it’s almost like having another actor.

What doesn’t work: Deborah Harmon as Barbara Fuchs. She is attractive, but pretty bland, and her reaction to finding out that she has been lied to about her father’s death is well under the radar. She plays it straight, but this film calls for a bit more. Her being prompted to perjure herself by Rudy doesn’t really work, she can’t pull off the subtlety of the humor. 
Also, Al Lewis as “Hangin’ Judge Harrison” is way too deliberate and over the top. His Texas accent is awful and his delivery reminded me of Crispin Glover in “River’s Edge”. Alfonso Arrau’s performance is just plain offensive, and Joe Flaherty is nearly invisible as the lawyer. 

ON SECOND LOOK

I’m going to say that “Back to The Future” is the superior film of the two Zemeckis/Gale comedies. I don’t know about you, but I am no longer 8 years old. I have seen enough damage and lives ruined by car accidents that I just don’t find it fun to watch them careening all over the place and smashing into each other every 2 seconds. If you take the great performances by Russell, Warden and Graham and the 3 or 4 uproarious scenes out of here, “Used Cars” is a mess. Fortunately, you can watch those scenes on youtube and get exactly what you need. Will those scenes work out of context? Probably not as well, so I say, watch “Used Cars” the 1st time, then when you need a fix, “Marshall Lucky” will give you a needed belly laugh, but there’s no need to watch the whole damn thing again.

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭ 1/2









Monday, May 5, 2014

"Tunes Of Glory" (1960) Dir: Ronald Neame



What I remember:

Not a lot, for sure. It's got to be 40 years at least since I watched this on WNET with my Step-Father. We typically didn't do a ton of male bonding; he was often at work in one of his restaurants when I was home from school. Football was huge in our family, and he would often chuck the pigskin around in the apartment, much to my Mom's chagrin. Once in a while, though, he'd be home, and we would catch a game or a movie together. I definitely remember "Tunes of Glory" playing pretty regularly on WNET's classic film showcase, and I know we watched it together, and then butchered Scottish accents for a good while after. 

This, along with "The Lavender Hill Mob", "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and, of course, "Bridge on the River Kwai" were my reference points for Sir Alec Guiness. He had yet to debut his most famous character, Obe-won Kenobi. This was an entirely different role for the great actor; not comic, and not stiff-upper lip British. Jock Sinclair was a tough, heroic military man, who's wild behavior suited the battlefield far better than it suited the halls of Commissioned Officers, halls that were populated by the upper crust of British society. 

What's a warrior to do during peacetime? How does he deal with petty bureaucracy and backstabbing colleagues? How does he cope with upper class attitudes and prejudices?

If he's a Scot, then he drinks and causes trouble. And if he's played by Sir Alec, then he's damn entertaining doing it!

After re-watching:

"Did ye hear what he said about whiskey, Charlie? Doesn't drink it, says he!"

"We're on a first name basis in this regiment. Your first name is Eric; my first name is Major."


- Jock Sinclair


PLOT SUMMARY:
The night before a Scottish Regiment is to receive a new Commanding Officer, a Colonel Barrows (John Mills), their acting C.O., Major Sinclair (Alec Guiness) throws a party for the Officers with drinking and dancing. The new Colonel surprises them by arriving early, and puts a damper on things. The next day Barrows implements a lot of changes that affect the regiment's decorum. The time is shortly after the end of WWII, and in the war Sinclair was a desert war hero, while Barrows was a tortured P.O.W. Sinclair is popular with the men, and unhappy about being replaced. He puts Barrows in a tough situation by publicly striking a Corporal in uniform, a offense that is worthy of a court martial.

STORY/THEME

Back in the day, I had an idea for a restaurant called "Dinner & A Movie". This is way before that TBS show of the same name that ran in the '90's. 

The idea was that a place would run a classic and/or foreign movie, and serve a menu that related to the time and place of said film. For example- you could show "Amarcord" and serve a rustic Italian menu, or "Smiles of a Summer Night" and serve Smorgasbord. Having been brought up in the restaurant biz, I realized how difficult it would be to develop a new menu every week, retooling the kitchen and buying from different purveyors. Plus it usually takes a week or two to hone a new menu to acceptability. Of course, nowadays we have pop-up restaurants as a craze, so maybe the idea was just before its time. 

I think if my restaurant had shown "Tunes of Glory", you'd have had a problem with attendance,  with our menu of Haggis and Blood Pudding.
Rather than do that, I decided to watch this film with a tumbler of Laphroaig Single Malt in my hand (and eventually me belly). This accomplished 2 things:


  1. I got drunk.
  2. I identified stronger with those who drank. "Whiskey all around!", I shouted from my basement couch. It was the cheapest round I'd ever bought. My Bichon did not even finish her glass.

Now you are probably thinking that my inebriation might make me somewhat of an inauthentic voice; that my critique might be a bit one-sided or simply skewed. Not so, says I, not so! I believe it attuned me all the better to the goings on in the film. 

Scotsman James Kennaway, who had fought with this regiment in WWII, wrote the original novel and the screenplay adaptation. The story seems very real and the PTSD issues that Barrows exhibits are obviously based on some personal experiences or observations. I guess in those days they called it "shell-shocked". He also seems quite well informed on the everyday activities of the regiment during peacetime. Sadly, Kennaway died young from a heart attack at just 40 years old. 

There is a correlation to "Breaking Bad" here. In that superb series, you begin by identifying with Walter White, the cancer stricken chemistry professor who can't afford treatment, and decides to cook crystal meth to raise money. But as the series develops, you begin disliking him and identifying more and more with his brother-in-law Hank, the DEA agent assigned to his case. 
In "Tunes of Glory", you totally identify with Sinclair to start; he has been passed over for leadership by the higher ups simply because of his lower class roots, and the job has been handed to an officer who is obsessed with decorum and detail.  As the film unfolds, you begin to realize that the ruddy Sinclair is self-serving, and wholly devious, while the stick-up-the-ass Barrows is a man whose entire life has been aimed towards running this regiment, a place wherein he grew up having been a legacy. 

When you realize that Barrows is a former P.O.W. who was tortured, then you see why his veneer is so thin. He becomes increasingly disturbed as the story progresses, and you start feeling for him. When Sinclair hits the young Corporal whom he has caught at a pub with his daughter, he becomes a despicable drunk, out of control without any limiter. When the Colonel agrees not to pursue a court martial, and Sinclair states that he won't regret it (even though he obviously WILL regret it),  your allegiance has switched completely. 

Both characters are warriors who have been damaged by war, and who need a battle to feel like they are living. There is a great scene, when Sinclair's old flame comes by to rev up his engines in the face of the possibility of a court martial, and she reminds him of what a fierce man he can be. The flames are fanned, and you know he will fight for his status, and try and disarm Barrows. 

FILMMAKING

Ronald Neame, veteran actor's director, shot the film with a static camera, not letting any tricky film style interrupt the proceedings or the performances. The result is very much like watching a play. The castle where the regiment is housed was shot for establishing shots only. Everything else was at Shepperton Studios. There is no cutting on action, only after camera movement has ceased. 
Is this a detriment, or a smart move on the filmmakers' parts? Truly you are seldom distracted from the story and dialogue, and you do get very drawn in.  But there are times when it would be nice to have something interesting to look at besides men in kilts. One great shot early on of Susannah York as Morag Sinclair, has her slip from shadows in to light as she spies from outside the proceedings of Jock's last night as C.O. party. What kind of a name is Morag, anyway? Did they play Scramble with Margo?

More often it is sound, not image that makes it's way into the proceedings as a director's device. When the guilt of what Sinclair has done to Barrows begins to unravel him, he hears a horrible whining hum in his ears. This guilt takes on a MacBethian touch when he begins to wash the blood off of his hands, and states that "it's not the body that worries me, it's the ghost". 

Later, when he is organizing the parade he will commission to honor Barrows, the Pipes he describes are heard hollowly in his head (and ours).
Ahh yes. The pipes. Those nasty, nasty instruments of whining, droning atonality.
My all-time favorite music joke goes like this:
Q: What's the difference between an onion and a bagpipe?
A: Nobody cries when you chop up a bagpipe.

If there is a drawback to the film, it is those damn pipes. Yes, it helps provide a sense of place and history. But really! Through the whole damn film? Enough!!! 

PERFORMANCES

Guiness was at first offered the role of Colonel Barrows, which is not surprising, since you know he can play the nervous upper crust type so well. His slit-eyed, bellowing version of Sinclair is spot on...he's got the accent and demeanor down. Nobody disappears into a role like Sir Alec, unless it's maybe Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep.  I was wholly correct in thinking that his work in this film is the main reason to watch it. 
The choice to cast John Mills as Barrows was a bit off the beaten path. He usually played lower class types ( see my OSL on "The Rocking Horse Winner"). If not wholly believable as a man with an early version of PTSD, he is certainly true to the image of a high born scion of a military family. 

The supporting cast runs the gamut of brilliant to meh. On the brilliant side is Duncan Macrae as the Pipe Major. I find it difficult to explain what makes "Pipey" such a unique and memorable character. I am certain, that if you see the film, you will be in total agreement. Suffice to say that Macrae gives his role an excess of realism and humanity. Also exemplary, and for the same reasons,  is Gordon Jackson as Captain Cairns, the officer assigned to Colonel Barrows. Jackson later had a major role in Neames' most famous film, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". 

On the meh side, sadly, is Dennis Price as Sinclair's best friend and drinking buddy Charlie Scott. He plays the role without even a hint of Scottish accent, and this could be on purpose. He had always been cast as the privileged person he was, and this seems incongruous with the part. Regardless, he plays what is a pivotal role in the story with about as much emotion as a Buckingham Palace Guardsman. He does say the Brit upper crust familiarity "Old boy" about 200 times.

Susannah York's first feature role is also a bit underwhelming. This may not be her fault...it's not a terrible layered character, and she completely disappears from the proceedings after her father strikes her suitor. 

ON SECOND LOOK

There are obviously critics who revere this film; it is in the Criterion Collection, after all. I don't hear it referred to as a highly respected and imitated Military film, but there are obvious influences on later movies, particularly "A Soldier's Story" and "A Few Good Men". It is wholly worth watching for the phenomenal work of Sir Alec Guiness, and the very real and continuing issues of PTSD and "Old Boy" favoritism. It is a fun watch, but maybe not as great as I remember. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭

Friday, April 11, 2014

"The Brother from Another Planet" (1984) Dir- John Sayles



Here's the pitch: Starman meets The Fugitive. Whaddya think? No? 

How about E.T. goes to the ghetto? Tagline: "I'll be right here, muthafucka!"

Sayles is an Auteur with whom I've had a very up and down experience, and some of those ups and downs were in the same film. In case you've forgotten, it was my revisiting "Baby It's You" that inspired this blog. I am a big fan of "Eight Men Out", and of "Lone Star", "Passion Fish", "Sunshine State" and "City of Hope". I'm not so high on "Lianna", "Honeydripper" and "Casa de los Babys". 

I did very much enjoy "Brother from Another Planet" when I saw it during it's first run in the theaters. I felt it was original and powerful, and that its star, Joe Morton in his first lead role, was phenomenal. I was certain that he was on his way to becoming a marquee actor. Well, THAT didn't happen. He has had a long and varied career, but pretty much always in supporting roles.

The film's immigrant allegory appealed greatly to me, and Sayles' wry sense of humor coupled with the emotional and stressful situation that The Brother is in gave the film a lot of depth. The decision to make him mute helped give the character some additional purity and innocence. You do strongly identify with this alien almost as much as you do with E.T. and Klaatu; aliens who turn a sharp mirror on us and our society. We need to be better, dammit!

I'm expecting to not be disappointed when I watch this film again. I think its subject matter is even more appropos of today, with all of the debates in this country and all over the world about immigrants and their rights. 

After re-watching:

"I'd rather be a cockroach on a baseboard up here (Harlem) then the Emperor of Mississippi." -Fly

PLOT SUMMARY

An alien ship crash lands in the New York City harbor, near Ellis Island. The surviving alien (Joe Morton) looks like an African American, with the exception that he has three large toes on each foot. It turns out that he is a fugitive, who is being pursued by two other aliens, caucasians dressed in black (John Sayles, David Straithairn). The alien has powers to heal both organic and electronic entities. This, along with a very strong empathic streak, helps him survive and elude his pursuers.

STORY/THEME

"The Brother From Another Planet" works on a lot of different levels. It is primarily an allegory, although maybe not the allegory I recalled. It is more reflective of the story of the escaped slave, the Underground Railway utilizer. In case you missed this analogy, Sayles takes us into a Harlem museum, wherein there is a drawing of a runaway slave being pursued by dogs. The Brother points to the slave, and then to himself; wordlessly explaining to the child he is with (and to us) that this is his plight.

Imagine how difficult it must have been for a person raised in captivity to find themselves a free man in the North, having to make their own way and find employment, a place to live, skills that would help them survive off the plantation. He/she can't read, never handled money, has zero education. All the while, this freeman must deal with the constant fear of being sent back into slavery by Blackbirders. This is terrifying. What's even more profound, is that this situation is far preferable to remaining a slave. 

"The Brother..." is also a story of how an outsider can have the perspective to see the roots of a problem. The Brother's empathy helps him to understand that the drug situation is a major cause for the iniquities of the ghetto. He feels that sharing that empathy with the wealthy drug purveyors will help stem the flow, and takes it upon himself to do so. 

Heavy stuff, right? Especially for a flick named "The Brother From Another Planet". With a name like that, you'd think that the movie would be a soulful version of "Earth Girls are Easy", not an allegorical exposition on the state of racism in the latter part of the 20th Century.

 And yet even with all this gravitas, "The Brother..." is a great comedy. It made me laugh out loud multiple times. And it wasn't  just "fish out of water" humor...in fact, that is the least of it. 

Here's an example:
When the Men in Black, the two white aliens chasing The Brother, track him down to a New York City Social Services office, their attempts to get information is deluged in a sea of red tape. They are inundated by forms and requests, and their response is to run out of the office immediately and dump all of the forms in the trash.

I also adored the scene when the Brother lands in a bar, and the bartender and his patrons try and figure out what and who he is. Smokey, the inveterate drunk, runs a test to see if The Brother is "deaf, a wino, or crazy". The Brother reacts to a loud pop of a paper bag. Next, he spits out a sip of whiskey. Smokey walks back to the bar and says simply, "Definitely crazy."

Sayles and Straithairn doing the Men in Black are reminiscent of the Red Lectroids from "Buckaroo Banzai". which also came out in 1984, so I'm not sure if this was intentional. Maybe it was just the comic ethos of the period to represent aliens as stiff legged, super powerful nerds. AHHHHH...that's right. This is all from The Coneheads! 


FILMMAKING

Nobody is going to mistake Sayles for Terrence Malick, or Stan the Man Kubrick for that matter. He is no visual stylist, yet his films always correctly reflect the story. "Passion Fish" was a bit soft-focused to give that southern air feeling. "City of Hope" had a dingy urban edge to the imagery, as did this film. The film was shot by Ernest Dickerson, who has since become a fine director in his own right, having done many episodes of some of the top series on TV; The Wire, Treme, Dexter and Walking Dead. As Cinematographer, he has been Spike Lee's main camera guy since Lee's debut. 

There are some striking images, and some very haunting ones too. The opening scenes in an empty Ellis Island Museum are beautifully shot. Every time the Brother comes in contact with a column or a bench, he hears the voices of immigrants past speaking in some vague Eastern European language. The camera shows the cavernous hall, and the reverb heavy voices echo through the expanse. 

An inventive visual is utilized by having The Brother pop his eye out, and leave it someplace as a kind of video recorder. When he is attempting to find out the root of the drug supply, he leaves it across the street from where the dealers hang out. When he pops the eye back in, it plays in a filtered and processed manner the events that occurred.  
This leads one to wonder, what other parts of his body can he leave to do stuff for him while he's off working? 

I loved the use of sound in this movie. With our hero being mute, the sounds of other voices and the city and video games take over. As for those video games, we are talking classic '80's. I believe the word used is "vintage". What probably seemed cutting edge at the time, seems so corny and dated now. And those sounds! Wow. What counteracts this archaic theme, is the very cool steel drum centered score by Mason Daring. Sadly, the original songs are not quite of the quality of the incidental music. The Brother's love interest, Malverne (Dee Dee Bridgewater) sings an absolutely TERRIBLE song that sounds like it was written in 5 minutes. It's almost as bad as that piece of garbage by U2 that they sang at this year's Academy Awards. No reflection, by the way, on Ms. Bridgewater, who is a fantastic vocalist, and who made the crappy song sound much better than it deserved.  

PERFORMANCES

As I said before I re-watched, Morton's pantomime job as The Brother is one for the ages. He conveys so much meaning and emotion with just gestures and expressions. His timing is immaculate, and that is true for both comedy and pathos. He conveys an air of innocence at the same time as a great sense of maturity. I see now why I thought he was going to be huge. One of the great comic moments comes when two midwestern white guys get lost in Harlem, they stumble into our bar, and sit next to The Brother. Trying to make small talk, they ask him where he's from, and he gives them the same answer he gives to everyone; he shrugs and points up. Like everyone, they don't get that, so they follow by getting to ask what they really want to know, where the Subway is. He pauses, then points down. Timing!

The supporting roles are all pretty solid, with the exception of the white collar drug lord, who is totally unbelievable. The best of the acting is by the barroom ensemble, especially the two older guys, Smokey (Leonard Jackson) and Walter (Bill Cobbs).  Cobbs you've seen a million times; he is one of the great "that guys". Jackson, too, is someone you know; I remember him as Basquiat's father. Dee Dee Bridgewater does a nice job in her love interest role, playing a Mary Wilson type on the downslope of a once great career. There are also early cameos by Fisher Stevens and Josh Mostel, two Showbiz legacies. Stevens' little turn as the card trick artist on the subway is fantastic. 

ON SECOND LOOK

Sayles' films can become dated, no question. I was really afraid that would be the case with "The Brother From Another Planet". In some ways it was true, particularly all the video game stuff, and also some of the jive talk. But the main theme, the lead performance and the comedy seemed to have enough freshness and clerverness to withstand the decades (30 years!). Let's also not forget how gentrified Harlem is now. It's hard to recall the neighborhood it was in the '70's and '80's. Trust me, I remember it well!

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

“THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT” (1945) Dir- Raoul Walsh



A Special New Year’s Edition of On Second Look!

What I remember:

When I was a kid, this movie used to show on one of the local New York channels every New Year’s Eve. Right after the ball would drop, I remember flipping through the stations, and this movie would come on. Most of the time I would watch the first 15 minutes or so, and then go to bed or watch something else. However, one year I decided to watch the whole thing, and I liked it. I was probably 11 or something.

Back then, my New Year’s Eve routine would be to go over to my cousin’s apartment, blow up water balloons and drop them on the best-dressed people we could find from his window. I am still amazed we never went to jail. OK, maybe that’s not true. But I am amazed that we weren’t made to go to bed without supper, or whatever punishment was in vogue back in the Mesolithic era. By the way, this was never my idea….I didn’t do things like that. I was way too much of a coward. My cousin was a year older than me, much smarter, richer, bigger and stronger. If he said do something, I did it. I admit that this criminal activity was hysterically fun, so I cannot act like I was the little angel in this scenario.
Anyway, after terrorizing and occasionally drenching Manhattan’s well-to-do, I would amble the few blocks back to my place (carefully avoiding the area under my cousin’s window), and watch the last few minutes of the year tick away. When I finally had enough energy to watch the entire movie, it was kind of the perfect brainless comedy for my state of mind. As I got older, the only thing I ever heard about the movie was that its star, Jack Benny, never made another feature film afterwards, and that it was such a huge box-office failure that it became fodder for his self-deprecating routines for years.

I’ve had this on DVR waiting for the right time to watch for over a year. I finally got around to it today, New Year’s 2014. 48 or so years later. What do I remember? He plays the trumpet. He has to blow it at midnight. It’s all a dream.

After re-watching:

“Are you diggin’ this cat? He’s gonna ‘manage’! So your boots are laced, Junior? All reet, all reet, all reet!” Trumpeter in the “Slippy Tompkins and His Twelve Tom-Cats” band.

PLOT SUMMARY

A trumpeter (Jack Benny) in a radio show big band falls asleep during the lengthy ad for Paradise Coffee (“The Coffee That Makes You Sleep”), and has an extended dream. In the dream he is an angel named Athanael who is charged with blowing the special horn that will destroy the Earth. He must blow it exactly at midnight. Upon arriving at Earth he encounters two fallen angels who try and derail the plan, since they are enjoying the material goods available, aka living the high life. Athanael fails in his first attempt, but gets another chance. A different angel, Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) comes down to help, but things get a little mixed up when a jewel thief is hired by the fallen angels to steal the horn.

STORY/THEME

I guess if there’s a moral here, it’s don’t fall asleep on the gig.

A quick personal story:

The weekend after my daughter was born, I had probably had a sum total of 5 hours sleep in 4 days. I had a lunchtime wedding gig, and at one point in the 2nd set we started the song “Sea Of Love”, which is a standard 12/8 moldy oldie. The 1st measure is G, and my part, the keyboard part, has me hitting that G chord 12 times in the measure. Then the next measure changes to B7. I fell asleep about halfway through measure 1. When the band switched chords, I continued to play the 8th notes, but didn’t switch chords. OUT COLD, but still playing. The guitarist subtly smacked me in the head with the neck of his Telecaster.
I did not dream that I was an angel.

Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, but really grew up in suburban Waukegan, Ill. I can only imagine how sleepy Waukegan was in the early 20th Century. He did get his start in Vaudeville, but it was as a violinist. The story goes that Minnie Marx, mother of the greatest comedy team the film world has ever known, discovered him. He began doing comedy when he was playing for the troops in WW1, and they started heckling him. His defensive ad-libs showed a talent for comedy, and this led him to add it into his act. Eventually his comic routines pushed the musical part of his act to the side. I really credit Benny with the popularization of self-deprecating humor. He certainly was a master of it.
His character in “The Horn Blows at Midnight” is pretty bad at trumpeting, that’s made clear. Somehow, he’s gotten the gorgeous harpist to like him. Once in the dream, he continues to be incompetent, and yet even in the dream, the harpist, now an angelic secretary, still likes him.

The dream borrows from “The Wizard of Oz”, in that all the characters from the radio show appear in different roles in the dream. The producer/director is the angel chief, the composer is the jewel thief, the two other trumpeters are the fallen angels, the bassist is the tough guy, etc.
Speaking of borrowing, it’s a good thing Benny and the Marxes stayed good friends, since he outright steals a line from Groucho: “If I held you any closer, I’d be behind you”. The film also borrows longtime Marx player Margaret Dumont, in her typical dowager role.

There’s not a lot of originality in the script. Most of the laugh-out-loud moments are physical. There’s a ton of fish out of water jokes, especially when Athanael does an on-the-job audition with a jump band. He has no idea what’s going on, and when he takes his solo, it’s about as square as you can imagine. While kids are Jitterbugging away, he begins his solo, and they stop dancing and start booing.
This would be in contrast to today, wherein the squarest guys are the most successful. For God’s sake, don’t swing or play an extended harmony. I thought we were supposed to get more and more sophisticated with each generation.
OK, sorry. I’m off my soapbox.

FILMMAKING

I covered Mr. Walsh back when I did the OSL on “The Strawberry Blonde”, so I'll get right to his style in this film.
 He really pulls out the stops in the final sequence, when Athanael is drowning in the cup of the giant Paradise Coffee Billboard. There are also some great matte shots in heaven with the humongous orchestra Athanael is in. It's fun to compare this vision of heaven with the one proffered in "A Matter of Life and Death". Both are major accomplishments for the special effects and set designers of the '40's. 

Walsh is not quite as successful in the many scenes wherein someone is hanging from the edge of the hotel roof. These shots are neither believable or particularly funny. Compared to Harold Lloyd stunts, these scenes are pathetic. Benny is simply not that kind of physical comedian. His strength is from the neck up...and his legendary timing. This set of skills is so much better suited for the small screen. 

The best physical comedy comes in the scene where sexpot Delores Moran and World class tough guy Mike Mazurki are trying to wrest the horn from Athanael. The timing and almost balletic movements of the three combined with the camera are nearly Keatonian. Moran is unsuccessfully seducing Benny, while Mazurki keeps reaching around the couch to try and grab the horn. It's been explained to all that violence against an angel will have the direst consequences, so Mazurki knows he can't just slug Benny. 

Mostly the movie swings and misses, depending on tired old jokes and situations. It's probably a combination of a weak script and a formulaic approach. 

PERFORMANCES

I've already pretty much covered Jack Benny, so let's concentrate on the role players. Beautiful co-star Alexis Smith is strikingly gorgeous, and isn't given a lot to do but be the only character who doesn't think Athanael is a total loser. Moran is given a much meatier part, and from the first time you see her, you can't take your eyes off of her. She is sexy in a way that Smith is not, not just in costume, but in demeanor. Apparently she was well known for her scandalous behavior in Hollywood, much more so than for her acting. It's true that she is no Kate Hepburn, but she does just right by this part.

The fallen angels have a moment or two, especially when they get the "twinges", every half hour. Dumont has a very small part, and is unremarkable. The part of the deli waiter is stand-out funny played by John Brown, and there is also a bit part for child actor Robert Blake as his son. 

The dual role as Hotel detective and radio engineer is given a nice turn by one of my favorites from the period, Franklin Pangborn. Ubiquitous is an understatement when describing Pangborn's supporting career in comedies. Nobody plays "officious prick" better, and he is also great in befuddlement. Mike Mazurki is typical, his range is what it is. Don't cast him as an Indian, like they did in "Comanche". You don't want to hear that Bronx accent deliver the "White man speak with forked tongue" line. It comes out "White man speak wit fawk tung." Moose Malloy ("Murder, My Sweet") is much more his speed, as is this role. 

ON SECOND LOOK

Like I said, I didn't really love or hate this movie when I watched it almost 50 New Years Eve's ago. I just wanted to recapture that time and period, you know, the way a song or a particular smell can. It didn't work. I spent 90 minutes basically wishing I had watched something new instead, or something old that had some originality about it. "The Horn Blows at Midnight" should not be considered a bomb, it's far better than that. But it is pretty unmemorable, and sadly not too funny.

On First Look: ✭✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭