Archive for the ‘What I Watched’ Category

 

This weekend I watched GROSSE POINTE BLANK again, for the first time in a long time. It’s eighteen years old now! It can vote! As an undergraduate film student, I wrote a seventeen-page paper on GROSSE POINTE BLANK — that’s how convinced I was of its greatness. I still love it, but I’ll try to be more brief here.

 

 

GROSSE POINTE BLANK has a perfect one-liner comedy concept – a contract killer accepts invitation to his ten-year high school reunion due to its proximity to his latest contract – and a sharp fit of a leading man in John Cusack, always the most cerebral of 1980s teen stars, who transitioned better than most into adult roles in the 1990s.

 

 

Cusack and his co-writers fine-tuned Tom Jankewicz’s original script and got the movie made under the direction of George Armitage, a filmmaker who works way too infrequently, having made the way-underrated hillbilly barnstormer VIGILANTE FORCE with Kris Kristofferson and Bernadette Peters, the somewhat-underrated (many cool people know how fantastic it is) crime classic MIAMI BLUES with Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the most-underrated-of-all action epic HIT MAN with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier.

Armitage nails the unusual tone of GROSSE POINTE BLANK, a very dark comedy about a paid murderer who kills people for money and who is lovable mostly only because he’s played by that guy who everyone loved in BETTER OFF DEAD and SAY ANYTHING.

 

GROSSE POINTE BLANK is one of the best-sounding movies of its decade, which is quite a feat considering this was the era of DAZED & CONFUSED, PULP FICTION, DEAD PRESIDENTS, and FRIDAY. The score is by Joe Strummer of The Clash. Pretty epic ‘get’ there. The soundtrack is stacked with killer pop, ska, punk, and new-wave songs from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

The supporting cast is pretty deadly – Dan Aykroyd deftly playing against type as Grocer, an insane hitman and rival of Cusack’s Martin Blank, who in true capitalist fashion is looking to consolidate his industry.

Alan Arkin as Blank’s traumatized psychologist, Dr. Oatman, who is terrified of his patient and continually begs him to stop coming back.

Joan Cusack as Blank’s secretary, equally traumatized by her cuddly sociopath of a boss.

Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman as a pair of bored government spooks who Grocer sets on Blank.

MAGNUM FORCE’s Mitch Ryan — a Dirty Harry sidekick! — as the dad of Blank’s high school sweetheart (played by a very winning Minnie Driver).

Stuntman and martial artist Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, who probably has the movie’s single best line. (“It is I…”)

 

 

In retrospect, GROSSE POINTE BLANK is a bit less successful in its action-movie moments as it is any time it’s being a hyper-verbal, deep, dark, and truly bizarre character study. But boy, it’s not like we ever get too many of those. I mean, technically this is a romantic comedy where plenty of people get shot dead.  My kind of movie entirely. If I were making movies, I’d probably make one like this (though maybe not as witty). We flatter ourselves with self-descriptions sometimes.

 

grossepointeblank-07

 

And in case you were ever wondering where the name of my site came from, now you know!

 

 

 

 

Fire away at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AGE OF THE DRAGONS (2011)

I can’t speak for every dude who writes about movies on the internet, but as for me, it’s not like I don’t have any options at all as to how to spend my free time. Sure, I fit the stereotype of single and brainy, but I also bring plenty to the dating pool. I’m generally considered to be sweet, thoughtful, loyal, and giving. Most people find me funny. I’m certainly presentable, even considered outright attractive from some angles. I’m currently regularly-employed and employable. I’m terrific with kids and I’ll make a great father one day. Animals also love me (though not always cats). The ladies reading this may be asking, What’s the downside?

Well ladies, the answer may be that I’m addicted to movies. Addicted. Big-time. I don’t know why, but I can’t go more than a day without one. And there’s only so many times you can watch GOODFELLAS or PULP FICTION or BOOGIE NIGHTS or whatever finite number of acceptable classics that normal guys my age watch, before you start sniffing around the outskirts of what’s out there in the great beyond, movie-wise. Sometimes that search can result in a great discovery, and most other times it doesn’t.

When I saw a preview somewhere for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, I knew I was in trouble. Somebody made a version of MOBY DICK starring PREDATOR 2‘s Danny Glover as Melville’s Captain Ahab, in the relentless and dangerous pursuit, not of a great white whale, no, but instead, of a great white dragon.

Aw hell.

I’m gonna have to watch that.

RIGGS!

MOBY DICK is often cited as The Great American Novel. Every author is out there trying to write one, but Herman Melville did it almost two hundred years ago. The book is its own Great White Whale. It has influenced countless writers and their works, been adapted to film multiple times, and has many obvious and less obvious descendents in movies such as JAWS and ALIENS. MOBY DICK is so many things — a historical document detailing the whaling industry of its era, a lierary allegory, a character study of obsession and madness, a rousing adventure tale… It’s really good! You should read it.

For a book of more than six hundred pages, the main plot of MOBY DICK is perfectly simple: A young sailor named Ishmael and his friend Queequeg, an intimidating foreigner, get a job on a whaling ship called the Pequod. They meet the first, second, and third mates on the ship — Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, respectively — but it’s a while before they meet the ship’s captain. When he arrives, he basically takes over the book. Ahab is a vengeful Quaker (which is an oxymoron, for the record) out to destroy the white whale who, in an earlier encounter, scarred him and took his leg. The only question is how many of the crew members will survive his deranged quest.

I love this story — it kind of has an elemental appeal to me at my center. It’s based on a true story! I love stories about sea monsters. As a kid my family took summer vacations to some of the areas described in the book. I grew up obsessed with the whale at the Museum Of Natural History in New York. And technically I’m half Quaker, so I even get that part of it. All of this is a run-up to say that I have more than a passing familiarity with the source material for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, which is why I found it to be even more of a bizarre anomaly than I figured it was going to be.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is so remarkably bizarre precisely because of its fidelity to MOBY DICK. There is no question that the people who made AGE OF THE DRAGONS have read MOBY DICK, which is both what makes it strangely admirable and what makes it so weird. Let’s look at some of the similarities and the differences.

Well, besides, the obvious.

MOBY DICK.

MOBY DICK is about a large angry whale.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is about a fire-breathing dragon.

In AGE OF THE DRAGONS, the action is shifted from sea to land. The dragons can fly, but the men who hunt for them travel on land. (Sky-boats would have been a little too crazy. Duh.) Still, their choice of vehicle is in fact a boat.

Boat.

The boat does have wheels, so I guess that makes sense, and the terrain they cover is generally coated with blankets of snow, so technically the boat is travelling over expanses of water, but again, let’s not mince words here: This is fucking weird. I mean, if you want to get all film school on it, you could possibly attribute the snow boat to being an extended reference both obliquely and literally to Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO, another story of mad obsession, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fucking snow boat in a dragon-hunting movie.

Not only that, but the winter is apparently one of the utmost extremes, so you know what that means….

Ahab Snow Ninja

!!!SNOW NINJAS!!!

Snow Ninjas.

At every moment where I got anywhere near taking this movie seriously, somebody would show up dressed like a snow ninja and I’d have to chuckle. Which is totally fine. There isn’t anything at all wrong, from where I’m sitting, with a movie about dragon-fighting snow ninjas. But if you’re going to make a movie like that, you ought to have a sense of humor, and AGE OF THE DRAGONS is played for straights. It’s pretty dour and grim, missing the fact that Herman Melville had a satirical eye, having penned lines for MOBY DICK like “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

But I guess the makers of AGE OF THE DRAGONS figured, if they were going to take the sense of humor out of MOBY DICK, they’d better put something else in, and what they settled on was — you guessed it — a pretty girl. Her name is Rachel, which, despite there being no character like her in MOBY DICK, actually does mean something in reference to the novel. (I think the Rachel is the name of one of the boats.) Here the character is Ahab’s daughter, who he took in after her family was killed by dragons. Ishmael takes a shine to her, I guess because she’s a better bunkmate than Queequeg, which Ahab doesn’t like but what did he think was gonna happen, really. The actress doesn’t resemble Danny Glover much, which I guess is a virtue because let’s face it, she’s only really in the movie for stuff like this:

Girl.

Outside of Danny Glover, there’s no one in this movie you’ve heard of before, except for Vinnie Jones. My British friends know Vinnie Jones from his soccer — sorry: football — career, and my American friends know him from SMOKIN’ ACES 2, X-MEN 3, and GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES. He plays Stubb in this movie, but not for long. A dragon breathes on him and he turns into a pile of dust. Sorry if that’s a spoiler. I don’t think anything like that happened in the Melville text, but I guess they only had Vinnie Jones budgeted for a couple days on this shoot. It doesn’t feel like an organic storytelling decision, is what I’m implying.

Vinnie.

Anyway the main reason I wanted to see this movie was to see Danny Glover acting weird and talking a lot about dragons, and in this respect I did not walk away disappointed. Basically Danny Glover hates dragons because when he was a young Danny Glover, he and his sister were walking through the woods and a dragon showed up. The dragon turned his sister into a pile of ashes like it did to Vinnie Jones, and it also burned Danny Glover up pretty bad, to the point where he can’t go out in direct sunlight. On one hand that’s a bummer, but on the other hand….

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

As I was watching this movie, which has a lot of dull parts — really too many, for a movie that has dragons and Danny Glover dressed like a G.I. Joe character — I gave a lot of thought to Danny Glover, who is an actor I have a ton of affection for, but who has been really under-served by the movies, I think. He’s definitely a guy who has “important actor” status, but who hasn’t been in as many great things as he should or maybe could be.

Danny Glover High Points:

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (Clint)

WITNESS (a rare villainous turn)

THE COLOR PURPLE (probably, I haven’t seen it)

LETHAL WEAPON (obviously)

A RAISIN IN THE SUN (Bill Duke version)

LONESOME DOVE

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS (funniest part of the movie)

DREAMGIRLS

Personally, I liked SILVERADO, PREDATOR 2, PURE LUCK, and BE KIND REWIND also, but I don’t know if those roles necessarily go on the highlight reel. (PURE LUCK is pretty bad, actually, but it’s a Martin Short movie, so.)

I guess the point I’m making is, for such a prestigious actor, there sure are a ton of movies like OPERATION DUMBO DROP, GONE FISHIN’, LETHAL WEAPON 4, and SAW, on that resume, which also includes an unfair amount of shitty TV shows. Of course Danny Glover has been in some great stuff, but not enough. He needs some Fincher or Mann or Spike or Spielberg in his future. I mean, of course I enjoyed seeing him like this —

Riggs!

— but there aren’t too many of me. I’m a guy who will spend this much time thinking about a version of MOBY DICK that has dragons: Through me does not necessarily pass the road towards Oscars and widespread critical acclaim. And even with that said, I’d probably rather see a sincere version of MOBY DICK than a silly one which I can only watch in the middle of the night when there’s no female presence around to stop me. There’s no reason why Danny Glover couldn’t be given a movie where he can play Captain Ahab for real. He shouldn’t be stuck playing some weird groaning Gollum-esque character lurching around in a cave in Utah at computer-animated dragons.

Seriously, you should see the part when he fights the great white dragon at the end and gets his leg caught in the harpoon — if only for a textbook definition of anti-climax. I mean, I haven’t said much about the effects of the movie: The production value is actually rather good — I liked the sets and the costumes and even a couple of the scenes of the dragons. The actors all take it as seriously as they’re asked to, and the music by J Bateman (either Jason or Justine, I’m not sure which) is better than average for a movie of this type.

But the movie’s pace is slack and all the good dragon bits all happen early on — it’s like the production blew their dragon wad early, and like a bad lover with no follow-through, skimped on the effects in the final scenes. Even Danny Glover turns into computer animation, a cluster of pixels being dragged away on the tail of a fake monster. If it wasn’t enough that he was asked to overact through the entire movie, he doesn’t even get to leave it with any dignity.

So AGE OF THE DRAGONS, sadly, probably not a thing I can recommend. But at least I learned a thing or two about myself.

I learned that all you have to do is say the word “dragons” and I will watch your movie. It’s a foolproof method of advertising. Everyone and their grandma use more common sales pitches such as “boobs” “monkeys” and “explosions” to lure me in, but not everyone promises “dragons” and that brings my eyes over, every time.

The other thing I learned is that if I had any brains at all, I would have just watched JAWS for the 57th time. So maybe strike “brainy” from that list of datable qualities I listed up top in reference to myself.

@jonnyabomb

 
Rewatched The Social Network today because I recently gave the new HBO show The Newsroom a shot, and wanted to remind myself that Aaron Sorkin is actually as good as people say, and not just the best bad writer in America.  (“MacKenzie McHale?”)  Maybe he needs David Fincher to shoot all his scripts.  Fincher would never allow so many ten-minute speech-heavy scenes.  Fincher knows how to edit some goddamn moving pictures.  Rarely is this so thrillingly apparent than in The Social Network.  By now this is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it.  Surprisingly, I still pretty much agree with everything I wrote on the subject, back in October of 2010.  In fact, I think it’s one of my better pieces.  See what you think.  Please do comment if you’re so inclined.
 
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From the time The Social Network was announced as a film straight through until the moment I finished watching it for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking of my friend Tom from Myspace. 
 
 
Well, we used to be friends.  We’re not friends anymore.  I haven’t been to his site in months.  Neither have most people I know.  We’re all on Facebook now.  The Social Network is an entire movie about Facebook.  It briefly name-checks Myspace, and its even more prehistoric predecessor, Friendster, but that’s all the credit Tom gets. 
 
I wonder how he feels about that.  A few years ago he was at the top of the world.  He was friends with celebrities and rock stars.  He even got to cameo in Funny People with Adam Sandler!  Tom managed to get into the movies there for a second, but no one bothered to make movies about him.  Poor Tom.  How he must hate that little punk who started Facebook.  He’s apparently not the only one.
 
The Social Network is told in an interesting way:  It begins with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) as an undergraduate at Harvard, creating the nascent website initially as a revenge move against the girl who dumped him (played by Rooney Mara).  Then the narrative fractures, fast-forwarding to two concurrent legal proceedings:  Zuckerberg getting sued by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), who claim that he stole the idea of Facebook from them, and also by his former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield), who claims that Zuckerberg shut him out of what started as a joint venture.
 
Back in real life, some of the specific details of this cinematic account have been called into question.  Writer Aaron Sorkin has been accused of inventing details for dramatic effect, and director David Fincher has been accused of emphasizing certain aspects over others, or even more incorrectly (and briefly) accused of misogyny, just because this happens to be a story that features mostly male characters.  This is the occupational hazard that filmmakers face when making a movie “based on a true story,” particularly one where all of the principal figures are still alive and in full command of their own subjective memories.  At the moment of writing this, my own personal opinion is Who cares?  As long as the movie is as good as this one, the details are less important than a story well told.  Personally, I’d be proud to see a movie this good having been made using my life as inspiration, even if I were cast in a less than adoring light.   I honestly don’t think that anyone comes out of this movie looking any worse than they already present themselves publicly, except arguably the Facebook website itself.  But I’ll get to that in a moment.
 
In praising The Social Network, I’m late to the party.  There’s not much left to say that hasn’t been said in more florid prose by more prominent writers.  I will remind my longtime readers (are there any?) that I was initially measured in my faith in the possibilities of this project.  I wasn’t sure that it was the most cinema-friendly material, and I have a major disdain for co-star Justin Timberlake (as much as it is possible to have disdain for a relatively innocuous pop singer who I’ve never met.)  But I trusted in the talents of David Fincher, who is one of my favorite directors, and the reward for that trust was an unusual, compelling, and fascinating movie that directly addresses a major element of modern cultural psychology.
 
Fincher brings a dark, dingy, even ominous palette to material that any other director would surely shoot flatly and brightly.  In the opening scene, which takes place in a college bar, this directorial choice feels naturalistic – it looks more like the inside of a bar than comparable scenes in any other movie I can remember.  But then, when Zuckerberg steps outside of the bar, bunches up his GAP sweatshirt, and storms all the way across campus to his dorm, the moody (and brilliant) score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross kicks in and the look of the movie doesn’t let up, and it becomes clear that this is a college movie that doesn’t look or sound like any college movie ever made.  Fincher is working again here with Jeff Cronenweth, his cinematographer from Fight Club, and together they bring the visual subversion and darkness from that earlier work to a seemingly unlikely match of story. 
 
Aaron Sorkin is not typically a writer whose work I follow – he’s obviously an excellent writer but his characters tend to be too eloquent and hyper-articulate, and I’m an Eastwood man.  I believe that you can say more with less.  Here, however, the dichotomy between Sorkin’s verbose scripting and Fincher’s typical approach somehow yields brilliant results.  It’s like scallops wrapped in bacon at a steakhouse.  It sounds like an ill fit, but just take a taste. 
 
 
Think of the scene where Eduardo Saverin’s unbalanced but eye-catching girlfriend (played by Brenda Song) sets a fire in his room – it’s the kind of broad comedy you might typically expect in a Sorkin production, with screwball dialogue firing in all directions, but Fincher shoots it like a Japanese horror movie.  He also gets the most out of the eerie Aryanness of the Winklevoss twins, who are actually surprisingly likable in the movie, but then again think back to that scene where they’re competing in a crew race in England.  Think of the crazed, irregular speed at which Fincher shoots it, and of course, think of the hyperactive take on Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King on Reznor and Ross’s musical accompaniment.  Stanley Kubrick would have approved.
 
The cast is uniformly excellent.  Jesse Eisenberg, of course, is receiving all of the complimentary ink he deserves as the nerd-savant entrepreneur who really did change the way people interact right now.  I’ve seen Eisenberg in a bunch of movies both good and bad – Rodger Dodger, The Village, Cursed, Adventureland, Zombieland – and he’s been good in all of them.  For The Social Network, he crinkles up his eyes and brings something new – instead of an emotional openness, there’s an inscrutability . He seems like an alien in the body of a college student, trying (and failing) to figure human beings out.
 
Yet I’m not seeing nearly enough praise going the way of Rashida Jones, in the fictionalized role of an assistant to Zuckerberg’s legal counsel.  As she does in every single guy-comedy she’s been cast in over the last few years (and there have been many of them), she brings a calm, cool, cutting, sarcastic groundedness to any room full of badly-behaving dudes.  I’ve sung the praises of this lovely lady before (find some here and here and also here), but it’s not just about me and my type:  In The Social Network, Rashida Jones plays the only real adult – I don’t count all the lawyers and such – and her character brings a necessary and sobering perspective (while simultaneously demolishing those claims of the movie’s misogyny alluded to earlier), particularly at the movie’s end, where her unheeded parting advice to Zuckerberg feeds directly into that haunting final scene.
 
Andrew Garfield has been cast as the next Spider-Man, and it’s hard not to watch The Social Network through that prism.  His work here does bode well for that movie, safe to say.  He plays the loyal and supportive best friend who is iced out and betrayed, and he’s never less than likable throughout.  He really is the human heart of the movie, since Eisenberg’s character is by nature unable to provide that.  And there’s also Rooney Mara, as the girl who got away (or ran screaming) – she only has a couple scenes, but like Garfield, she brings a recognizable relatability to her role that the movie and the main character need.  (She’ll be working with Fincher again on his upcoming adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – on the basis of this evidence, it’s good casting, although no offense, I’ll always prefer her sister.)  
 
By contrast, Armie Hammer’s double-character is set up narratively as the movie’s antagonist, the stereotypical blond jock from the college movie.  Hammer does bring a creepy dual-Spader WASPishness to the role, but also has the kind of charisma that makes you see his characters’ point of view.  Max Minghella is also good as Divya Narendra, the cohort of the Winklevoss twins.  I would’ve sworn he was Indian.  Is that wrong to admit?  I have more unpopular opinions than that, such as:
 
It’s true, I can’t stand Justin Timberlake.  (In The Social Network, the ‘entertainer’ plays Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster and fast-talking opportunist who takes Zuckerberg under his shady wing.)  The main reason for that dislike is that we’re closing in on two decades where he’s been in the public eye, and I have yet to see a genuine human emotion from the guy.  To me, he represents callow and shallow over the past decade and in the year 2010.  You can call it masculine jealousy, but I’m creeped out by seeing sex-symbol status awarded to a guy whose main career inspiration has always been Michael Jackson.  He’s all “entertainer,” and that doesn’t work for me if you don’t have the music like Michael Jackson did.  It’s certainly a question of personal taste, but I don’t agree that his attempts at music (and more recently, at comedy) are remotely as good or as interesting or as knowing as his recent press would argue.  I’d still like to be proven wrong, but it hasn’t happened yet. 
 
All of that being said, however:  He’s terrific in The Social Network, and for all of the above reasons.  He’s cast perfectly for the character he’s playing, and while that may sound like a back-handed compliment, he delivers the needed effort and effect.  The way Timberlake works in the movie is the way he works in life:  Eisenberg’s character is taken in by his flash and dazzle and energy and confidence, and Garfield’s character sees right through it all and doesn’t trust it for a minute.  (Sound like someone we know?)  Late in the movie, when Timberlake is called upon to deliver a broken, emotional performance, the strain shows – but just as it should, since his character up until then was used to living without consequence and getting out of the trouble he kept finding.  When it finally catches up with him, he’s struggling to adjust.  Timberlake plays it perfectly.  My only concern is that producers, seeing how good he is in The Social Network, will decide that Justin Timberlake can carry a movie on his own.  Worse, they will mistakenly assume that he can carry an action movie.  (Can you imagine?)  But that’s an issue for the future.  In the present, Justin Timberlake is just another effective element in a fairly flawless film.
 
The last question that The Social Network raises is, “Where does it leave us with Facebook?” 
 
For one thing, I wonder how people who aren’t on Facebook will look at this movie.  Do they get it?  Do they understand why that final image is so haunting and so true?  The Social Network has everything to do with the way that, for all of its virtues, the internet has fractured and even obstructed real-life social interaction – we connect with each other even as we isolate – and Facebook is the ultimate example of that shift.  For me, Facebook is a means to an end.  It will help me bring the review you’re reading to more people than might otherwise have seen it.  On a personal level, I have been able to reconnect (or at least, to trade emails) with many people who I have known and missed over the years, and I’m thankful for that.  But that’s me emphasizing the upside.  As we all know, there’s just as much empty noise on Facebook as legitimate interaction.  Some of the same less-positive aspects of our social lives are just as present on Facebook – we’ve just moved them from the streets to the internet.  (That’s the name of my next rap album, by the way.) 
 
Is Facebook bringing us closer together, or driving us apart in some ways?  Does the fact that Facebook was invented by a young man who may or may not have the ability to maintain healthy, positive friendships in his own life bring into question the idea that his invention has anything to teach us about friendships?  Is there truth in Facebook?  Forget the truth in the circumstances of its invention – I’m talking about whether or not using Facebook can help us get closer to truth . Has Facebook really become part of our lives, or does it exist strangely separate from them?  And most importantly:  Is Tom from Myspace on Facebook?  And if he is, would he be “friends” with Mark Zuckerberg?  Or me?  (I’m only half kidding, by the way.)  These are some of the questions that The Social Network invites us to ask, and these questions are the reason why it is the movie of the moment.
 
Find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

 

Men In War is a 1957 film directed by Anthony Mann, from a script by Philip Yordan which was adapted from a novel by someone named Van Van Praag (awesome).  Even though the majority of movies of the era were being shot in Technicolor, Men In War is in black and white.  I wonder if that was a budgetary issue, an aesthetic decision, or something else.  I’d be projecting, as I haven’t been able to dig up an answer to that question just yet, but there is something to the idea that black and white is a more fitting format for this story.  It’s less Hollywood-idyllic and more stark and unforgiving.  There’s redemption in it, but not in a sweeping, overstated way.  It’s an unabashed tribute to the American military, but an appropriately business-like one.  The score by Elmer Bernstein is typically right on-point to the movie’s aims.  It’s lovely and effective music, and outside of the title song (whose lyrics are a little too on-the-nose to ever play by today’s standards), it’s as relevant still as the rest of the movie is.

Men In War stars Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray, two of the most underrated movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s, and two of my all-time favorites.  Ryan is the dark figure with the world-weary eyes and fighter’s frame who is best known by today’s audiences, if at all, from his small role in The Dirty Dozen.   His career was much longer and more distinguished than that, as described by this tribute that I recently wrote in honor of the man and ten of his best movies.

Ray, for his part, is possibly even less well-remembered today, although the reasons why are hard to understand.  (It may have something to do with the apparently sad later years.)  At his peak, Ray had an appealing, gravel-gargling voice and an every-day tough-guy manner that are enormously charismatic.  I can’t help but think of Michael Chiklis when I think of Aldo Ray, although Quentin Tarantino thought of Brad Pitt.  (Pitt’s character in Inglourious Basterds, Aldo Raine, is a direct tribute to this iconoclastic actor.)  Ray also didn’t have the broadest filmography, having not appeared in as many memorable films as he probably deserved to have.  Remind me to write up a nifty film noir called Nightfall that Aldo Ray starred in, the same year as Men In War.   Generally Ray played scrappy tough guys, outsiders with big mouths and big attitudes.  That’s what he plays here.

Men In War takes place on a very specific date, September 6th 1950.   It takes place during the Korean War, which is interesting, because in 1957 that wasn’t too far in the past.  Just as historically interesting, both Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray served during World War II, Ray having seen action in Japan.  One has to imagine that this added to the naturalistic performances that this movie displays, something of a hallmark of Anthony Mann’s films.

Ryan plays a beleaguered lieutenant, Benson, whose forces have been diminished and separated from any communication with the rest of the American presence in Korea.  He needs to get his men to safety, and they’re already beginning to fall apart.  Vic Morrow (now best known as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad) makes a strong impression as a shell-shocked young soldier.  So does James Edwards as Sergeant Killan, a kind-hearted African-American G.I. who is a friend to Morrow’s character and, unfortunately, due to cinematic conventions, doomed.  The scene where Killan stops in a clearing to decorate his helmet with the wildflowers he finds, ending as it does with his silent murder by encroaching commandos, is one of the movie’s most striking images.

Aldo Ray enters the movie in a Jeep, carrying his commanding officer alongside him, even though the colonel has been rendered mute by minefire and, presumably, having witnessed too much carnage.  Ray’s character identifies himself only as Montana, a rambunctious and headstrong G.I. who is fed up with battle and only cares to get his colonel to safety.  Ryan’s character wants to requisition the Jeep, and Montana’s services, in order to press on with his diminished forces.  Ray’s character, even out-ranked as he is, resists every step of the way.  The movie centers around the conflict between the two men.

It’s a vivid conflict, and it’s profoundly effective, enacted as it is by two such charismatic actors.  The appeal of Ryan and Ray is very different, but equally potent.  Ryan, so often a convincing heavy but in this case allowed to play the kind of role here that his obvious real-life decency fits like a glove, is a quieter, sterner kind of a good guy.  Ray is the more quintessentially American character, brash and arrogant — although you also see his point.  The main question of the movie is about what is the right thing to do in the chaos of war, to look out for self or to fight as part of the unit, even if the latter seems hopeless.  It’s not exactly as if Montana is being selfish — he seems to care about his Colonel as much as, if not more than, himself.  But ultimately, as pro-military as this movie is, Montana must come to understand and embrace Benson’s all-for-one ethos.  That the movie brings us, the audience, to see things the same way, and to appreciate the very real heroism of the men who fight our battles for us overseas, is why it is still a captivating piece of work today, and obviously still just as relevant.  There can be no doubt that Steven Spielberg saw this movie before making Saving Private Ryan.   Men In War is a little more ambiguous than that more recent classic, but it is just as effective at approximating the senses and textures of battle, amazing for a movie fifty years old.  Today being Memorial Day, if you’re looking for an appropriate movie to mark the occasion and spark reflection, let me please recommend this one.

(Credit to all of the great internet sources where I collected these photographs, through Google.  Start here and keep clicking!)

Which Way Is Up? was directed by Michael Schultz (The Last Dragon) and co-written by Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, The Jerk), which for me are a couple of eye-catching names, but of course, the main draw of this movie is Richard Pryor.

As a huge comedy nerd, naturally I hold Richard Pryor in the pantheon, but it can be argued that movies never quite served Pryor the way he deserved — the best examples of his brilliance can be easiest found on his stand-up records.  That’s the stuff I discovered later on; as a kid I first saw Richard Pryor in The Muppet Movie, which is the first movie I ever saw.  He’s the guy who sells Gonzo the balloons that Gonzo ends up flying away on.  (Remember?)

After that, I saw Richard Pryor in The Wiz and Superman 3, neither one of them comedic highlights. (I saw The Toy a bunch of times on HBO, too, but that one never seemed quite right to me.)

By the time I was an adolescent, I was a full-fledged Eddie Murphy acolyte, so I would have watched Pryor next in Harlem Nights, which isn’t a great movie by any stretch but Eddie Murphy made it to work with his two idols, Redd Foxx and Pryor. Some years later, I decided to go back and start educating myself on Richard Pryor, listening to and loving his albums, and reading his underrated autobiography, Pryor Convictions.  There’s obviously not much I can add to the volumes of appreciatory words said about this remarkably influential comedian by many more qualified people.  But I can mention Which Way Is Up?, which is an intriguing, under-seen part of the Richard Pryor canon.

In Which Way Is Up?, Pryor plays a poor orange picker named Leroy Jones, a hapless husband and father who accidentally becomes the face of a controversial labor movement, and is run out of town by anti-union corporate goons.  He heads to Los Angeles where he becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman (Lonette McKee) who insists that he not make love to his wife if he wants to be with her.  Pussy-struck, Leroy agrees, and begins a double-life and a dual-relationship (one of them suddenly sexless.)  Because Leroy won’t be with her inexplicably, his wife takes up with another man, a lecherous preacher, and then Leroy’s jealousy kicks in and he tries to seduce the reverend’s wife.  Chaos soon follows, as if it weren’t already a factor.

It was really fascinating to watch this movie, as such a fan of the two great American comedians who have [arguably] been most influenced by Pryor. In Which Way Is Up?, Pryor plays three characters, Leroy Jones, the adulterous preacher, and also Leroy’s elderly father, a role in which he steals the entire movie away from himself.  There’s no way that Eddie Murphy didn’t see this movie.  Pryor had the same facility for playing multiple characters, ones which were right at the border of caricature but still possessed of recognizable behavior.  There’s also a sexual frankness and a real rage that course underneath Pryor’s performance in this movie, both traits that I think exist as an undercurrent in Murphy’s best work.  Which Way Is Up? also made me think of Chris Rock, more specifically of the movies that Rock has made.  Which Way Is Up? is an adaptation of an earlier Lina Wertmuller movie, and Rock also chose to remake a European film when he adapted Love In The Afternoon into I Think I Love My Wife.  It also shows that Pryor was a comedian who was interested in making film comedies with a social context, which Rock most definitely is.  (Head Of State pre-dated Barack Obama’s presidency by five years.)  You can argue that Pryor’s movies, like Rock’s, aren’t nearly as blisteringly brilliant as their stand-up routines, but there is the same uncommon perceptiveness and risk-taking present.

By the way, Which Way Is Up? is also pretty damn funny.  It’s not the most consistent comedy I’ve ever seen, but when it’s funny, it’s funny by a lot.  Pryor was nearly as good a physical comedian as he was an agile mind — check out the scene where a posse of crackers asks his character if he’s the Leroy Jones who started the labor rally and Pryor scrunches up his face (to look like a different person) and tells them no, but go look down the street for him.  Pryor’s seduction techniques, such as when he’s wooing his Los Angeles lady love, or trying to rope in the minister’s wife, are insanely funny, and there’s nothing like the expression on his face when his hard-up wife starts trying increasingly kinky methods to get him interested.  I don’t want to ruin all the movie’s jokes, so why don’t you check it out if you haven’t done that already?

 

This was an impulse-watch off of my Netflix queue.  I thought seeing this movie might be interesting because it came out no long after The Godfather (actually right around The Godfather Part II) and it has a major supporting role from Robert Duvall.  It’s not totally worthless, but it’s not all that interesting either.  It’s The Tourist of its day.  That’s a little harsh.  Maybe it’s more like Stanley Donen’s Charade, only de-carbonated and watered-down.

Lady Ice stars Donald Sutherland, in one of his bizarrely common romantic lead roles from that period, as a crafty insurance agent on the trail of a beautiful jewel thief, played by Jennifer O’Neill.

Jennifer O’Neill was an actress probably more famous at that time as a fashion model.  I remember her (as the nicely-named Shasta Delaney) from Rio Lobo with John Wayne, and many more film fans probably know her as Kim Obrist from Cronenberg’s Scanners, but most of the country remembers her as the long-term face of Cover Girl.  So says the internet.  That latter acting background is more of what’s on display in Lady Ice — she’s excellent to look at but kind of dull as a career criminal.  Here’s a clip:

That’s about as exciting as it gets.  (I couldn’t even find a trailer — this must not be a fondly-remembered movie by anyone.)  I’m not sorry I checked it out, because the idea of a female criminal mastermind is always more interesting to me than the standard male version, but ultimately, there’s not much here to recommend.

Onward with the queue….

 

@jonnyabomb

Time to pretty up this here website…

   

Not to knock the guys in the cast, but I’m in a Claudia Cardinale kind of mood today.  Hopefully y’all can understand the sentiment.