Movie Watching in Quarantine Scene 8

Jaws

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Jaws has become more than the prototype of the modern blockbuster. With the pandemic, it has become something of a political statement. Specifically, the Mayor of Amity who insists on keeping the beach open because it’s the 4th of the July weekend, and local businesses will be crushed if the tourists stay away. Hey, it’s just a shark. Never mind that people are dying. Putting that aside the film remains a great thriller/horror story perfect for the summer. Jaws is so perfectly paced that one is always on the edge of your seat, tense even when the scary moments turn out to be false alarms, and just when you start to relax it hits you with the real shocks. Like “Psycho” “Jaws” has become a pop culture icon. There are even bits of dialogue that have become catch phrases (you’re gonna need a bigger boat) which is always a sign that a film has moved on to be more than just a great and entertaining film, but is now embedded into our pop culture.

M*A*S*H

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In January 1970, I was back from Vietnam for about five months or so. A four month stint followed in the states at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and now I was on leave before heading off to Germany to complete my three years of service. While home, I was catching up with family, friends, and movies, lots of movies. It’s well known that director Robert Altman used the Korean War as a metaphor for the then ongoing and unpopular Vietnam War. The film struck a nerve. M*A*S*H was a crass, subversive, and sacrilegious anti-war comedy unlike any other. The film not only mocked military bureaucracy and war but religion takes a bit of a beating too. Like Dr. Strangelove, made some six years earlier, the film laughs at the absurdities of war and the bureaucracy behind it. Egotism, incompetence, and piousness all take a shellacking. The only thing our anti-heroes (Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John) value is proficiency in the operating room. When the chips are down, saving the wounded men from the insanity that engulfs the world is what matters. Sutherland and Gould lead an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, and Robert Duvall among others. While the film has lost some of its shock value over the years it remains a classic.

Lust for Life

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Kirk Douglas made for the perfect Vincent Van Gogh. He managed to dig into the emotional depths of his character and is charismatic enough to make the audience believe him to be the tortured artist. It was this movie, and soon after, Irving Stone’s autobiographical novel, that introduced me to the world of art. Eventually, I made my way to read about other artists, going museums and in the process creating a lifelong love for art. “Lust for Life” is the portrait of the artist as someone who suffers for his art. There is rejection and abuse in every one of his relationships. Douglas, in one of his finest performances, was nominated for an Oscar and deserved to win. Instead, the Academy gave the Best Actor award to Yul Brynner for his overly theatrical performance in The King and I.

The Front

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The Front is a well-intentioned black comedy of an ugly period in American history. The Blacklist ruined many peoples’ lives, destroying careers and livelihood many times without proof or cause. It turned friends and colleagues against each other. Narrow-minded politicians preached hate, and fear listened to by blind narrow-minded followers. The film was written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt, two of the artists blacklisted back in the 1950s. Using Woody Allen as the front lightens the dark subject matter yet they still managed to make a film that conveys the dark times and fears the country was facing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It didn’t matter if you were a member or not of the Communist Party or were a member sometime in the past. If you were friends with someone who was or had knowledge of someone with left-wing leaning, once they got you in their headlights, called before the HUAC and forced to testify; name names, or be blacklisted. Allen plays his usual self-centered coward who eventually finds himself in deep water when he is subpoenaed because he acted as a front for a few friends on the blacklist. Is the film an oversimplification of what happened, yes, but it works at the limited level it is presented. And it has a great closing line!!! “The Front” had one other special memory. John Lennon and Yoko were in the audience! I spotted them after the film ended and the audience began filing out. I never saw Lennon in concert but I did go to the movies with him,,, sort of.

Murder Inc.

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 Murder Inc. mixes facts with a fictional love story. The film allegedly tells the true story of the Brooklyn based independent murder for hire crime organization that carried out assassinations for the Mafia and the Jewish Crime Syndicate. Peter Falk plays contract assassin Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a cold hearted killing machine, and he is the best thing in the movie. In real life, and in the film, Reles turned rat after he was marked for a contract himself. Both in the film and in real life, Reles died suspiciously when he was tossed out a window of Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel despite being under 24-hour police protection. The on location shoot gives a realistic feel to it all. The rest of the cast includes Stuart Whitman as his rather stiff self, May Britt, Sarah Vaughn, making her film debut, Sylvia Miles, and Morey Amsterdam as what else but a standup comic. But the worse casting is that of TV comedian Henry Morgan as the real life prosecuting attorney Burton Turkus.

Movie Watching in Quarantine Scene 6

The Man With Two Brains

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 One year after Steve Martin and Carl Reiner spoofed the P.I. genre in “Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid,” (their third of four collaborations), they reteamed to do a takeoff on Mad Scientist flicks in this delightful though sometimes uneven comedy. Martin through sheer talent pulls out enough laughs to make it worth seeing. Some jokes may slip by if you’re not familiar with films like “Frankenstein” and “Donavan’s Brain.” Kathleen Turner makes for a perfect slinky, devilish siren, in a perfect send up on her previous femme fatale in “Body Heat,” who marries our crazy hero only to soak him for his money.
Martin portrays brain surgeon, Dr. Hfuhruhurr who has perfected a new type of brain surgery, something called the cranial screw-top method. He uses it to save the life of a beautiful young woman (Turner) he hit with his Mercedes. The woman turns out to be a golddigger who seduces every hunk she meets while avoiding to sleep with her new husband. Frustrated, our hero falls in love with the brain of another woman — a brain that has been pickled jarred by another mad scientist (David Warner). Despite some bits falling flat, there are more than enough good ones, though it never rises to the level of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”

                                                                      Tony Rome

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With Tony Rome, Frank Sinatra found the smart ass, wise guy loner role the public always felt the singer/actor was in real life. He’s a bit too old for the role, he was 51, however, that hard, tired face and look surely adds to the aura. So how good, or bad, is Tony Rome? Well, it’s neither. It’s somewhere in that hazy middle ground of shades of gray. One of the film’s obvious failures is the wardrobe choices Sinatra’s Rome wears. He looks like he came out of a 1950’s film complete with fedora and “ring-a-ding” repartee he is given to pontificate. What was rat pack hip in the late 1950s and early ’60s was completely old fashion in the psychedelic world of Purple Haze, Surrealistic Pillows, and Sgt. Pepper in the late ’60s. Worst is the wardrobe he wears when he is on the houseboat where he lives. The Captain’s hat and white slacks are cheesy God awful. That said, Sinatra handles himself well. He’s convincing as the streetwise loner. The plot is a bit convoluted, but then what P.I. film isn’t? Rome is asked by his ex-partner to help get a rich, drunk teen out of a Miami hotel without being seen and keeping the hotel’s name out of it. It sounds like a quick $200 bucks, but of course, it’s not.
The film is lightweight, more like a TV detective show than say The Maltese Falcon. There’s no deep probing into the meaning of life or Rome questioning his own sense of morality. There are no rain-soaked darky lit mean streets that many shamus roam. The setting is Miami and it’s all sunshine and heat. Sinatra is good with the wisecracks; they come quickly and often. There’s a good supporting cast that includes Richard Conte, Jill St. John, Gena Rowlands, and Sue Lyons. There’s also a cameo by the former middleweight/welterweight champion boxer Rocky Graziano, and daughter Nancy Sinatra sings the title song.

 

The Wild Bunch

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THE WILD BUNCH – Both Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” released in 1969 take a look at the end of an era: the Wild West. They are two films coming at you from different points of view. Butch Cassidy is a loving, romanticized take on the Wild West featuring two of the most charismatic stars of the era. Butch and the Sundance Kid are outlaws but they are fun-loving and good-humored. It’s an honor, as Woodcock (George Furth) the train employee tells Butch, to be robbed by Butch and his gang. With Butch and Sundance it comes down to that you wouldn’t mind having a beer with these guys. Not so much with The Wild Bunch crew. There is an inherent violent streak in this film whether its kids burning a scorpion, or lawman blatantly gunning down innocent townsfolks while attempting to stop a robbery, outlaws shooting U.S. soldiers, outlaws shooting Mexican soldiers or Mexican soldiers torturing outlaws. They kill for revenge, profit, power, fun, and any other reason. It was a way of life.
The Wild Bunch, like “Bonnie and Clyde” a few years earlier was considered violent and bloody. After more than 50 years of cinematic violence, the shock value had numbed us some but it still holds a grip on the audience. Like Butch and Sundance where the future is seen in the form of a bicycle, here it’s represented by the automobile. The closing final shootout is a violent visually poetic take that closes the book on a way of life. Oh yeah, “The Wild Bunch” is a modern day masterpiece of filmmaking.

Pay or Die

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For three years, 1906-1909, Lt. Giuseppe “Joseph” Petrosino headed what became known as the Italian Squad of the New York Police Dept. As a detective, Petrosino focused on fighting the Italian criminal element in New York’s Little Italy, a group known as La Mano Nera or the BLACK HAND a forerunner to the Mafia. “Pay or Die” is a vivid account of the life and times of Giuseppe Petrosino. Like most film biographies liberties have been taken but the overall story is true, including an extortion attempt on Opera star Enrico Caruso as portrayed in the film. Though filmed on a studio lot, the film reflects an accurate look at immigrant life at the turn of the 20th Century. Italian immigrants were pouring into the United States mostly from the poorer parts of Italy. Many of these families settled in New York, in what became known as Little Italy. The Black Hand preyed on the Italian community extorting money from store owners. If they didn’t pay, storefronts were blown up or worst. The owners brutally murdered. A note would be left with the body, a black hand imprinted on it as a warning to others. The film provides a tough look at the early days of the Italian criminal element in the United States and how they as predators, extorted and terrorized their own people. The film uses the phrases “Mafia” and “Mafioso” at a time when J. Edgar Hoover only just began to admit that the Mafia even existed (maybe he watched this movie). “Pay or Die” was a small B film that came and went into theaters without much fanfare. Ernest Borgnine is perfectly cast as Petrosino who comes across as a tough honest cop dedicated to cleaning up the Black Hand out of Little Italy and giving honest Italian immigrants the chance to become part of the American dream.

Marathon Man

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For a time in the 1970s, William Goldman was one of my favorite authors: Magic, Control, Tinsel, and Marathon Man were some of his best sellers. He also was a prolific screenwriter: Harper, No way to Treat a Lady, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Misery, and The Stepford Wives. He also adapted many of his own novels to the screen Including Magic and Marathon Man. Marathon Man is a fast paced, diabolical thriller about former Nazis, smuggled diamonds, a rouge government agent, and a dentist scene that still brings nightmares to me each time I have a dental appointment. John Schlesinger’s film version is not perfect. If plot holes bother you, it could be bothersome, but putting that aside, it’s a thrilling ride. Dustin Hoffman is well cast and Laurence Olivier delivers a frightening performance. After watching this film, you’ll never want to hear your dentist say, “Is it safe?”

Movie Watching in Quarantine – Scene 3

Here is scene 3 in my list of Movies Watched in Quarantine.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

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 With the mood, the ambiance, the Miklos Rozsa’s soundtrack, the perfect deadpan voice-over by Steve Martin, we are transported back to 1946 and those dark rain-filled streets of film noir. Well sorta, after all, that is Steve Martin sitting in the detective chair and it is Carl Reiner in the director’s seat. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is an affectionate, funny, and technically inspired tribute to the murky cinema of gats, dames, and mean darkly lit streets.

 

Murder By Natural Causes

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Written by William Levinson and Richard Link (creators of Colombo) the 1979 Made for TV movie is a clever and devious story filled with one twist after another, and when you think you have it figured out, there’s another twist. A must-see for mystery lovers. I originally saw this on CBS back in 1979. In the late 1990s, I found a used VHS copy at Blockbuster Video and held onto it to this day. Unfortunately, it has never been released on DVD. The film stars Katherine Ross, Hal Holbrook, and Barry Boswick.

 

The Narrow Margin

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One of my all-time favorite Film Noir’s. Running a rapid 71 minutes, the film’s pace is as hi-speed as the rails they are riding. We are back in time when most people still traveled by train. It’s a world filled with sleeping berths, club cars, dining cars, porters, and whistles shrieking in the dark of the night. Most of all, the film has the great Charles McGraw, the unofficial king of B film noir. Whether portraying a cop or a criminal, his gravel like voice and square jaw looks have graced many film noirs. McGraw meets his hardcore match in Marie Windsor. Known as the “Queen of the B’s,” for the countless low budget films she made in her career. Windsor’s off-beat beauty graced a wide variety of films most importantly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Windsor’s 5’9” slinky frame, her coldhearted, seen everything looks make her a perfect femme fatale, and a superb counterpoint to McGraw’s rugged honest cop.

 

Broadway Danny Rose

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Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a fourth rate theatrical agent whose client list is filled with some of oddest acts in show business: a one-legged dancer, a woman who plays musical glasses, a blind Xylophonist and a stuttering ventriloquist. Danny is a good hearted loser who believes in his client’s worth no matter how bad they are. Allen creates a nostalgic world filled with the lower levels of New York’s show business community that he knew well from his early days as a TV writer and standup comedian. Many of the characters have a colorful Damon Runyon like quality to them. Classic Woody!

 

Movie Watching in Quarantine – Scene 2

Here are a few more films I  watched while social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic which is still not under control. Here in Florida it continues to spread. I hope everyone is staying safe. Please wear a mask, it’s not that big a sacrifice. I know you can handle it  Anyway, as I shelter from the storm, here are a few thoughts on some of the films I’ve watched. More to come!

Misery

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Whether you are a musician, writer, actor, artist or any other public figure, you know having fans is an integral part of the experience. Fans follow the artist on social media, fans share experiences and thoughts with each other, and fans are devoted. However, with some fans there comes the point when that devotion takes a turn toward some very dark places; far from the ordinary, toward the bizarre, the maniacal or even worst. Fan is short for fanatic which derives from the Latin adjective fanaticus. The fanatic has lost all perspective of their relationship to the artist. They are overly passionate and unreasonable in their devotion to their idol. Some even feel they know the artist and have a personal relationship where the artist is speaking directly to them. It’s all very delusional, and needless to say, way outside the boundaries of what is considered conventional behavior. Then there is Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates).
Misery is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and one of the best adaptations of a King novel. Filled with dark witty humor and a sense of dread that builds throughout. Would have loved to have seen Hitchcock make this film

The Incredible Shrinking Man

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Ignore the silly title this is one of the greatest existential science fiction films ever made. It’s based on Richard Matheson’s novel, The Shrinking Man. On the surface, the film is fun to watch, but it does carry some serious underlying themes. Our Shrinking hero sees his shrinkage as a loss of his masculinity. As he continues to shrink, he feels his manhood and his place as the man of the house are being diminished as well. He is no longer sexually adequate. He also faces a life where everyday objects are now life-threatening. A spider he once would have stepped on is now the size of a prehistoric monster. The pet cat is a predatory beast ready to attack. Small leaks from the basement water heater turn into a major flood for our minuscule hero. He hates being a scientific experiment and a spectacle for the media. He now fights for survival in his own house where everyday objects are now the enemy to his existence. Finally, he must face the biggest question of all. If he continues to shrink, will he eventually even exist?

 

Lost in America

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“Turn on, Tune in, Drop out!” Timothy Leary once proclaimed. Albert Brooks takes it to heart and is born to be wild in this hilarious off-beat comedy, Lost in America is his third feature film as a director and writer (script co-written with, Monica McGowan Johnson). David (Albert Brooks) and Linda (Julie Hagerty) Howard, two materialistic yuppies who have good jobs and a pleasant life in California, but still do not feel fulfilled with their lives. David is expecting a big promotion to Senior Vice-President with the advertising company where he works. However, on the big day, he finds out his boss has other “big” plans for him. A transfer to New York to work on a major new account…and no promotion. David is stunned; His jaw-dropping response is, “a transfer??? I can get that at a bus stop!” He goes on a verbal rampage directed at his boss and is fired. He convinces Linda to quit her job, sell all their assets, buy a Winnebago, and go searching for America just like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper..well almost.

And so they hit the road to the tune of Steppenwolf’s’ Born to Be Wild blasting on the soundtrack. We watch as their new Winnebago heads out on the highway, looking for adventure, in this superb parody of the counterculture hit, Easy Rider.

The free-spirited lifestyle doesn’t work out and the couple comes to realize that dropping out may not be the answer, at least not for them. Two weeks after hitting the road David and Linda make their way to New York with plans and hopes of David begging to get his job back

 

Between the Lines

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I have always had an affinity for newspaper themed films. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole,  Sam Fuller’s Park Row, Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Alexander MacKendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, Richard Brooks’ Deadline U.S.A, and more recently Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight are just some of my favorites. As you can tell from this small list, newspaper reporting can be a heroic endeavor or it can be down and dirty, even scandalous.

A forgotten film in this sub-genre is Between the Lines. With the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, as well as the Vietnam anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement, underground newspapers representing the growing and influential youth market of the time were beginning to pop up throughout the country. The heyday of the underground newspaper was between 1965-1973. By 1977, when this film was made the idealism and the paper’s circulation has faded thanks to an apathetic public. The film works best as a document of its times, capturing the shabby conditions, the idealistic anti-establishment attitude of the characters, and finally the realization that it’s all about to change. The cast includes John Heard, Jeff Goldblum, Lindsay Crouse, Bruno Kirby, Gwen Welles, Stephen Collins, Michael J. Pollard, and others. One of the highlights is a couple of live performances from Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes.

Basic Training: A Film by Frederick Wiseman

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It’s 1970 in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has been given access to film a new group of Army recruits, draftees and enlisted, as they go through eight weeks of basic training. One thing these young men have in common, they all look haunted by what is ahead… Vietnam.

The eight weeks of training is a dehumanizing experience filled with the young boys taught to act robotically the same for the greater good. Those who do not fit in are harassed or even worse. One young soldier, his name is Hickman, cannot march to the cadence of “Left, Left, left, right, left…” He is continually called out to get in step. Eventually, he is pulled out of the squad and “trained” by a Drill Sgt. The kid still can’t get the rhythm. Later, he tells a Pastor that he just doesn’t fit in with the others, never did. He can’t seem to do anything right and has even been threatened with a “blanket party” by his fellow soldiers. Another trainee, a young black accused of not following orders explains to a superior, “Let’s be frank with each other, now you know this is not my country.” He would rather get a dishonorable discharge than follow orders. The officer explains how a dishonorable discharge will follow him through life. He doesn’t care. Most of the boys fall in line. The gun-ho guys who are ready to fight, others to get through it all and come back home alive.

IMG_09771While it seems filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman was given free access, I tend to doubt it. The Drill Sgt.’s are tough, but they seem a little too nice. With the prospect of Vietnam ahead of them, the trainees are told by the D.I.’s and higher-ups is just do what we teach you and everything will be fine. How comforting.

My skepticism comes from my own experience. I was drafted a year earlier and went through basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The Drill Sgt.’s were not as kind. Kind was not in their vocabulary. You had to have a good pair of lungs to be a D.I. because they screamed a lot, ridiculed, and trashed you. And as far as the “do what we teach you and everything will be fine,” well, it was more like “boy, your ass is going to ‘Nam, Charlie is waiting and you are going to die, and while you’re there, Jody and me will be making nice with your mama, your sister, and your wife.”

You watch these young soldiers, really boys, going through their training: how to crawl in the mud under barbed wire, hand to hand combat, bayonet training, weapon (M-16) training. You cannot help but wonder how many of these boys never made it back home. The strangest training segment in the film and this is something I did not experience, is a training class on how to correctly brush your teeth! Brush your teeth and win the war. We lost in Vietnam, many boys lost their lives, and many more came home disabled mentally and/or physically.

When I came home, I didn’t talk about Vietnam. Not because of any trauma or horrific experiences from the war, it had more to do with the people back home. There were two camps, those who favored the war and wanted America to bomb all of Southeast Asia out of existence and those who were part of the anti-war movement and saw you as a baby killer. I belonged to neither camp. Like the trainee, Hickman who I mentioned earlier, I just didn’t fit in anywhere, and so I didn’t talk about it. It took many years before I told people I was a Viet Vet and to this day I still don’t know where I belong.