This Week in Rixflix #3: March 24-30, 2017
OK, so three editions in and I am already super late with one of these. This one is a full week behind when I originally planned to post it, but then its spot was taken by the Rolling Stone piece. I could blame a variety of things, but let's chalk it up to good ol' fashioned don't give a crap, and then move onward. It just means that the fourth one will go up just a few days after the third, but who's counting, really?
This week's feature film count: 25; 19 first-time viewings and 6 repeats.
Highest rated films: Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Devils (1971), Gimme Danger: Story of the Stooges (2016), The Red Turtle (2016), They Live By Night (1948), and Requiem for the American Dream (2015) – 8/9 each.
Lowest rated films: April Showers (1948) and Rich, Young and Pretty (1951) – 5/9.
Westworld (1973) Dir.: Michael Crichton – A repeat viewing of a film that has been in my mind since I was a kid, this latest round was obviously brought about from watching the new HBO series. I really think the new version is terrific and certainly far more mind-expanding and tied to the current mindset of the world more than the original was to its own time. That the 2017 Westworld definitely has more "there" there is obvious from the first scene of the series, even if the "there" we are seeing is nothing more than a false front to a vaster, deeper reality. Or is it? What you cannot deny is that novelist/director/surgeon Michael Crichton was remarkably adept at creating "high concepts," even if some of his earlier efforts such as Westworld really did not get fleshed out as far as they possibly could. Even with a sequel and an extremely short-lived 1980 TV show.
Such restraints show in the first film of theme park madness that he scripted and directed before he ever started to visualize the cloning of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Westworld has that great initial idea – an amusement park where the participants are hosted by robots costumed and mannered according to the period of the specific land in the park that they inhabit – but despite how fun the film is, I always find myself disappointed with the actual scenes inside the various lands of Delos, itself named after the island at the center of much Greek mythology and history. (In the original film, we get to visit Westworld, Medievalworld, and Ancient Romanworld, and then we get the addition of Spaworld and the title land in the non-Crichton sequel, Futureworld.) Unfortunately, the bulk of Westworld's acting and staging are pretty much what you would find on the lido deck of The Love Boat, Yul Brynner's stealthily creepy, black-clad performance as The Gunslinger notwithstanding (and I always like Richard Benjamin). Despite not being able to invest fully in any action in the film that does not involve the main character and his pursuer, I still get a real kick out of watching Westworld. This might be mere nostalgia haunting me yet again, but The Gunslinger was the stuff of nightmares when I was kid, and it still works on me. When Brynner starts stalking the sub-levels of Delos and eventually tears off his own face mask to stare blankly forward with a head full of nothing but malfunctioning wiring... Ooooh! I still get a chill. TC4P Rating: 7/9
Hombre (1967) Dir.: Martin Ritt – Let's not get into battles over pronunciation. We're just typing here. Hombre is a film that I have started watching about three or four times in my life, but have never gotten past the opening scene until now. That opening, where we are shown the visage of Paul Newman, in the company of several Indians, with a deeply sunburned face and a wide bandana across his forward, struck me so immediately as a blatant attempt to sell a white actor as Native American than I would just stop watching the film right away. Finally, this past week, I got past that opening scene and found that Newman's character is white but though he was first kidnapped by Indians as a child, upon reaching manhood decided to continue living amongst them as he found the ways of white man crude and barbaric. I can accept that, because that is exactly how I feel about them. (Especially the corps of idiots in the White House right now...) Once I figured out the film was about bashing The Man and was really an anti-establishment film, I was all in with it. And Newman is really terrific here, in a largely silent role (though he has several key lines) as the man who is reluctantly pressed into service as a hero when the stagecoach in which he is riding back to civilization to collect an inheritance is set upon by thugs. The head of those thugs is hidden amongst the passengers, one Cicero Grimes, played with devilish abandon by Richard Boone, who seems to clearly relish the role. And the passengers initially treat Newman's character poorly as they consider him to nothing but an Indian, but then turn to him desperately in their time of peril. The film is derived from an Elmore Leonard novel, and is as tense and crammed full of tough, clever dialogue as you would expect. That I would not have discovered the charms of Hombre had I not gotten past that first scene is a lesson to me, though I am more careful these days to let a film breathe a little once I start it. TC4P Rating: 7/9
Gimme Danger: Story of the Stooges (2016) DIr. Jim Jarmusch – What a great surprise this was when I got onto Amazon Prime that Sunday and discovered that not only was there a new documentary about Iggy and the Stooges to watch, but that it was directed by Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Night on Earth, Mystery Train, Dead Man, Ghost Dog... need I go on?) Some major reviewers have basically described Jarmusch's handling of this material as being surprisingly staid and prim; I could not disagree more. I don't need a documentary to replicate a band's onstage performance or persona; I need it to tell the story of its subjects satisfactorily, from which I might gather new information that I did not have going into the film, but still have the key points that I thought I knew either confirmed or subverted. In this regard, Gimme Danger is wildly successful.
The not-so-secret weapon of this piece is the band's lead singer, Iggy Pop. The tale of the Stooges is incredible enough, but that we get to spend most of the film in the company of Iggy is even better. He might appear crazy and physically exhausting onstage, but in interviews, Iggy is almost always sharp and erudite, exposing himself as far more well-read than you might expect. (Who knew that Iggy got his knack for lyrical brevity from The Soupy Sales Show?) I find him an engaging subject for interrogation (the director's tongue-in-cheek term, to which Iggy waggles his eyebrows), with so many great (possibly specious) stories to tell, you almost didn't need the rest of the interviewees in the film. Glad to have James Williamson, Ronny and Scotty Asheton, and Steve Mackay on board all the same (both Ashetons and Mackay had died by the time of this film's release), and Gimme Danger is all the richer for it. Jarmusch, true to his style, lets the participants, mainly Iggy, control the narrative, which might be part of what some reviewers don't like. But it is the music that won me over in the end. If you have interest in all at the origins of punk music before there was the term punk music, this film is a must watch. TC4P Rating: 8/9
Tension (1949) Dir.: John Berry – TCM Noir host Eddie Muller sold the showing of this film on the evil charms of female lead Audrey Totter, and he is not at all wrong for doing so. She is terrific as the truly malevolent Claire Quimby, who absolutely torments and cruelly toys with her adoring husband Paul (played solidly by Richard Basehart, who surprises me here – I always think of him from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea only, a childhood favorite). While Paul toils as the night manager at a pharmacy, Claire runs around behind his back, and he saves enough to purchase a new home for the two of them, she refuses to even step inside. Bored with the though of suburban bliss, she runs off with the rich owner of a beach resort. After Paul tries to get her back but is beaten for his efforts, he adopts another persona, plotting the death of his rival while he maintains his normal job. In the course of establishing his false identity by getting a second apartment, he falls in love with a neighbor played by Cyd Charisse (angelic here, as always). There are twists upon twists in this not entirely believable thriller, which is both to the film's detriment as well as what makes it so marvelous to enjoy. In many ways, I would almost put this on the level of Joseph H. Lewis' superior Gun Crazy, except that cult film's deeply nihilistic tone is exactly what this film is missing in the end. I plan on watching Tension again in the near future. TC4P Rating: 7/9
Anthropoid (2016) Dir.: Sean Ellis – Not long ago, after missing numerous chances to see it, I finally got around to watching Hitler's Madman, an early (1943) Douglas Sirk directorial effort based around the true story of the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi official generally acknowledged as the main architect of the Holocaust. The Sirk film was already shocking enough, even in the midst of World War II, for its gripping and unflinching handling of the material and for being more of a straight horror film than a war picture. Let's just say that the story (true to life) doesn't end happily for the assassins, even though most (including myself) would consider them heroes for their actions.
Cut to 2016 and we have the same story told in Anthropoid, named after the actual name of the assassination attempt, Operation Anthropoid. Always a riveting presence (for me), Cillian Murphy plays Jozef Gabčík, one of the men assigned with hopefully changing the course of Czechoslovakia's fortunes (Jamie Dornan plays the other main assassin, though there were several men involved). If you know history at all, you will know that while Operation Anthropoid was ultimately successful in eliminating its target, the actions taken led to the full-scale destruction of the towns that aided the assassins, resulting directly in the deaths of over 15,000 Czechs alone and in greater, enforced Nazi presence and influence throughout the country. Where this film far outlasts its older counterpart is in the studious attention to detail in the sets and costuming as well as the painstakingly choreographed action sequences, which perhaps exhaust the viewer by extending a little too much, but pay off emotionally as we see the sorrow that lies beneath what would seem on paper to be an obvious victory. Regardless of the version, it is a very hard story to watch and attempt to understand because the only way to end it positively is to project one's sense of history into the future, both in the short term (the end of WWII) and the long term (the end of the Soviet era and the splitting of the country into two states). TC4P Rating: 7/9
Lizzie (1957) Dir.: Hugo Haas – Too many movies this week to fit into my opening graphic (which only holds 18 posters), and Lizzie is one that I snuck in because it showed up on TCM just two weeks after I had deleted my previous recording of it to make some much-needed DVR space. Released the same year as the Oscar-winning The Three Faces of Eve, Lizzie has Eleanor Parker instead of Joanne Woodward playing the woman with the multiple personality disorder. Since I am more of a fan of Parker's, I had always wanted to see how she tackled a similar series of parts, and the answer is she does pretty well, but this film is not nearly as accomplished as Eve, nor is Parker's lead performance(s). This one just doesn't dig the same, deep marks into your mind that the bigger film does, but it is bolstered by some good supporting roles from Richard Boone as her doctor, who is determined to bust through Elizabeth Richmond's three personalities (Lizzie being the most dangerous one, a wanton vixen who wants to destroy the others wholesale and has a taste for seduction), and Joan Blondell as her caring aunt. Nightclub scenes featuring a young Johnny Mathis singing It's Not for Me to Say along with Warm and Tender are used to good effect, while future Mrs. Cunningham, Marion Ross, has a small but pivotal role. (And, boy, was she a cookie...) Where this MPD story succeeds is the sleazier overtones of the Lizzie side of Elizabeth, which does come off a little too cheesy in regards to the soundtrack, but still livens the film up a bit. A nice try, but no Eve. TC4P Rating: 6/9