Sunday, July 29, 2012

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) - Self-Indulgent Swashbuckler

"Star Trek: First Contact" (1996).

I am an old school Trekker, and am not overly impressed with "Star Trek: First Contact" (1996), directed by cast member Jonathan Frakes for Paramount. Now, the cast is mostly on record as saying that they enjoyed working on "Star Trek: First Contact" more than any other, but that is probably just because it was their first film without the original crew anywhere nearby.

Geordie and Crusher Star Trek First Contact 1996
The regulars are all back, somebody give them a pep pill

"First Contact" isn't bad, and it certainly has its moments, but it sure doesn't blow off my socks, either. It doesn't compare with the films made by the original cast, and has too many similarities to the "Next Generation" series for me to take it seriously as something above and beyond. I think of it as simply an extended TV episode from the "Next Generation" series. That may be just what you want, in which case, why are you reading a review - go see it! However, if they are just aiming at people who want to see their old favorites doing the same old things in the same old ways, they should just go and do another tv show, or maybe a tv movie. Don't bore me with feature films that are simply blown-up tv episodes. I will admit that guest star James Cromwell gives a big league performance, better than any seen in the "Next Generation" series, but the regulars are just running through the motions. Their characters are so set in stone that they might as well pose together as Mount Rushmore. Take it for what it is and enjoy, just don't expect too much from this movie unless you are a big Data (Brent Spiner) or Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) fan.

Picard searching Star Trek First Contact 1996
If I don't get that Yankees game score, I'm coming in blasting!

Viewers usually go into a film like this with strong convictions. Either you a fan of the numerous Star Trek TV series and the Starship Enterprise, or you aren't. Let me get right out front on this and say that my loyalties always have been with the original series, not the various remakes/sequels/prequels/etc. I would imagine that if you grew up with the pablum that was "Star Trek: The Next Generation," this film will prove a wholly satisfying experience, as it reunites all of those epic heroes while still in their prime. Here they all are, frozen as if in amber, doing their things exactly as they did on the long-running TV series.

A Borg Star Trek First Contact 1996
A typical Borg.

So, with that huge fraction of the audience satisfied and out of the way, let's look at the film as a film for those wondering whether it's worth watching. "First Contact" is wildly uneven. There are some great scenes and a few fine characterizations, but there also is some seriously poor acting, too much emphasis on the "old gang" atmosphere, and a plot that, well, to say it is sketchy is probably an understatement. The score by Jerry Goldsmith isn't necessarily bad, but it is slow and ponderous and completely pompous. The original series had a fast, bright, lively theme that got your pulse racing, this one sounds ostentatious and overblown. As the franchise has progressed and become an institution, like McDonald's or something, the themes have gotten slower and slower and slower, with a basic melody that has calcified into a completely generic riff. By this point, the Star Trek theme is more likely to make you nod off than it is to get you ready for some phaser blasting and Borg-kicking.

Star Trek First Contact 1996
Data, you're looking a little rough, dude.

The script is a combination of seen-it-all-before elements from "The Next Generation" and plot points ripped off and subtly altered from the original series. Evidently, they didn't think that the previous film, "Star Trek: Generations," provided enough of a link to the original series for fans, so they go back and co-opt one of that series' episodes. James Cromwell, though, who plays the character from that episode, is the film's saving grace. As the eccentric Dr. Zefram Cochrane, he dominates every scene in which he appears. He acts rings around everybody in the cast with the sole exception of Patrick Stewart. If you are at all a fan of any of the many incarnations of "Star Trek," it is worth watching this film to see how he breathes life into a minor character from the original series. Alice Krige also is appropriately creepy as a very odd nemesis for our heroes.

Data and Borg Queen Star Trek First Contact 1996
You kiss your mother with that mouth? Oh... no mother... sorry.

After that, the acting quality falls off sharply. All of the original cast members are given their little bits to satisfy the fans, but what plays fine in a season-long series tends to fall flat in a film. The writers struggled mightily to make familiar figures Worf (Michael Dorn), Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), Geordi (LeVar Burton), and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) relevant, but once you get past the "Why, here is our old friend Worf, so nice to see you again" moments, they are quickly shunted aside and given precious little to do because there are only 111 minutes granted to actually tell a real story. Their every appearance becomes a major, pointless distraction. They may as well just look at the camera, wave, then go home. Every catch-phrase from the series is given its "moment:" we all are supposed to pause and genuflect as Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) portentously mutters "Engage" or similar nonsense that means So Much to certain Trekkers.

Borg Queen Star Trek First Contact 1996
You vill be my sex slave....

At the very bottom of the acting heap is Alfre Woodard, in a truly embarrassing role as, well, somebody Cochrane likes. I mean, being the big guy's main squeeze gives her the cred to talk down to a starship captain, right? She somehow gets mixed up in the Enterprise's problems for no apparent reason at all. One of the most annoying characters in the whole "canon," she is given so many diva moments that they might as well have given her an aria to sing. I'm sure her hyperactive over-acting is not wholly her own fault and is a script issue (she tries to kill the Enterprise crew at first, then faints aggressively upon learning their identities, how precious). However, injecting her into scenes where she has no business shows how slack the writing was. They needed somebody to be an antagonist on a personal level to Picard (the Borg are so cold), and she manages that as self-righteously as the screenwriters could get away with. I believe she is a fine actress, but not in "Star Trek: First Contact."

First flight Star Trek First Contact 1996
A Magic Carpet Ride in "Star Trek: First Contact," with James Cromwell having fun and Jonathan Frakes smirking like he's seen it all before.

There is a studied self-indulgence about this film that just reaches out and grabs you. We have Director Jonathan Frakes acting like a, well, director in virtually every scene in which he appears (who exactly is flying Cochrane's ship, him or Cochrane, since he's the one giving all the commands and smirking the whole time?). Frakes oozes into his scenes like Dean Martin after a few drinks. Fan favorite Commander Data has his every twitch focused upon and his part expanded way beyond its usefulness. Once you get past the fan favorites, everyone else just drifts through their scenes. There is a definite caste system at work here. We have the big stars like Cromwell actually trying to act, then on the next rung down the regulars sleepwalking through scenes exactly as they did ten years before, then the peons who don't get a chance to do even that. At the end we see some of Cochrane's fellow villagers standing around, and one might well ask, why didn't we ever spend any time with these people before this? The answer is clear, they aren't "part of the canon" so they don't merit any attention. Which pretty much summarizes the entire film. Cochrane's friends appear more like passers-by cordoned off by the crew during filming than people he lives and interacts with on a daily basis.

Glenn Corbett as Zephraim Cochrane Star Trek First Contact 1996
Oh, never mind, I just put this in to see who's paying attention. If you can identify him, you win a warp drive.

If you aren't a fan, you might still enjoy "First Contact." It has some great battle scenes and a wonderful take on how human our heroes invariably are or were. But this one's really for the completists, the hard-core Trekkers who don't mind plot anomalies and who work overtime to come up with explanations for things such as why a Vulcan survey ship would notice a primitive rocket flying briefly through the Earth's atmosphere but not the major starship floating nearby, or why certain "assimilated" enemies are supposed to be biological and susceptible to poison gas but somehow can work out in space without suits.

Cochrane meets the Vulcans Star Trek First Contact 1996
The climactic moment in "Star Trek: First Contact" - two guys casually shaking hands. Yes, this is the climax of the film.

An enjoyable romp for fans, just an OK time waster for everyone else.

Film Poster Star Trek First Contact 1996


It's All True (1993) - Memorable Insight into a Genius

It's All True Orson Welles film poster
"It's All True" (1993).

Make no mistake, "It's All True" (1993) is a circa 1943 film, not a 1993 one - the release was delayed for 50 years because it was never completed during Orson Welles' lifetime. But for lovers of old cinema, this is worth a look.  The experience of making this film scarred Orson Welles for life (he only did it, I understand, to help the war effort), and it really isn't very good.  But, it does have some of the Welles master touches here and there.  More of a curiosity piece than anything else.

The "film" starts out as a documentary, then concludes with actual footage shot by Welles for the project. Both parts complement each other, and so this is a film for those interested in Welles, film-making, Allied politics during World War II, and Hollywood studio machinations. The Welles footage is interesting, but it does no more than loosely recount a story basically taken out of the newspapers of its day.

It's All True Orson Welles film poster

I managed to see this film at its "premiere" at the New York Film Festival, held at Lincoln Center in September 1993. Several of the producers were there - I recall walking past a gathering of them afterward out by the street, perhaps three men and a woman - and I recall one of them saying, quite reverently, "It isn't every day that you get to see the premiere of an Orson Welles film."  After later learning what they had to go through to get this made (finding and rescuing the remaining footage, getting the financing out of France of all places, somehow piecing together the facts of a project nobody except some poor Brazilian locals and a few of Welles' loyal associates wanted told, I should have stopped and shook their hands - or maybe just bowed.

It's All True Orson Welles
Orson Welles filming "It's All True."

I'm a bit of a Welles fan, though surely not the ultimate one. So, it was quite an honor to be present that night of the premiere at the New York Film Festival. The house was packed, and everybody seemed appreciative. The film made a bit of a splash at the Festival, and then was quickly forgotten. And that's a shame, because to understand Welles and the best of film-making, I think you should see this film.

It's All True Orson Welles
Orson Welles shooting "It's All Good."

Throughout his life, Welles held a grudge about the incidents behind this production. He was minding his own business, returning to Hollywood on the train from a trip to New York, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Welles had many projects in various stages of completion at the time, including his radio show, but President Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller (a major RKO stockholder asked ("ordered" is perhaps slightly overstating it) to drop everything to help the war effort. Specifically, the coordinator of the federal Inter-American Affairs office asked him to go to Brazil (on his own dime) to make a documentary (noncommercial) film in order to improve "hemispheric solidarity." Rockefeller made it clear that he expected Welles to get to Rio by February to film the annual carnival. What the US government, the studio, and the Brazilian government wanted (but apparently never made crystal clear to Welles) was a simple tourist look at the Carnival and maybe a few other scenic spots. Welles complied, basically because he wanted to serve his country and trusted his Hollywood associates to honor their agreements and responsibilities and take care of winding up his remaining projects under his remote direction.

It's All True Orson Welles
Orson Welles filming native Brazilian dancers for "It's All True."

All very nice, in theory. There is many a slip twixt the lip and the cup, however. Welles ended his radio program, did some quick editing of his next film, "The Magnificent Ambersons," and flew to Rio. He took a small crew, and they shot the carnival in Technicolor and black and white. He adapted an anthology idea that he had been working on (which in turn he had adapted from previous radio projects) to make the film a series of vignettes about Brazilian life. While there, he heard about a 1650-mile raft voyage completed by four impoverished fishermen (jangadeiros) from Fortaleza to Rio to plead their case about improper fishing practices before President Vargas. This is where he ran into resistance both from the Brazilian and US governments. Welles persisted, much to everyone's chagrin.

It's All True Orson Welles
Orson Welles during the production of "It's All True."

So, the main story idea Welles developed centered around the journey by the four fishermen to speak to President Vargas about how they were being exploited by the owners of local fishing boats. And they were being exploited, there is absolutely no question about that. Welles started filming in the slums ("favelas"), because, quite logically, that's where the people being exploited lived.  President (actually dictator) Vargas (rather ironically known as "Father of the Poor") didn't want any of this Communist propaganda about slums being filmed, so he threw Welles out of the slums, got in touch with Washington, Washington got in touch Rockefeller, and Rockefeller with Welles' employer RKO. Welles' supportive boss there got fired, and Welles was effectively recalled (after shooting a token schedule in June and July, 1942). Along the way, his follow-up to "Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons," was ruined because everyone at the studio now knew that Welles was on the outs and disregarded Welles' instructions from Brazil (and also probably because they just felt like ignoring him in any event). Welles sent detailed notes about how he wanted the film edited that were barely looked at.

Everything went downhill fast. Rockefeller left the RKO board of directors, studio president George Schaefer was forced to resign, and editor Robert Wise (who later became a top Hollywood director) butchered the editing of "The Magnificent Ambersons." The studio ultimately booted Welles and his staff from the studio lot. "It's All True" was never finished, and Welles didn't get to direct again until after the war, several years later. It wasn't called a blacklist then, but Welles was as blacklisted as anyone. Even then, his formerly Olympian reputation was completely shot, at least with studio executives who assigned projects. Welles spent the rest of his career taking freelance projects, odd jobs to finance his own projects, and basically working on his own.

It's All True Orson Welles

His anger and bitterness lingered. Thirty years later, during interviews, he would suddenly, angrily and almost randomly drop the name "Nelson Rockefeller" (then the New York Governor, then Vice President) as if Rockefeller (essentially the guy at RKO who sent him to Brazil) was the evil master puppeteer making the whole world dance to his tune (as he had made Welles dance). The name "Vargas" also pops up unexpectedly in Welles' other work, usually not as the most sympathetic of characters (such as the lead character in "Touch of Evil). Welles would on occasion mention in later years that German submarines had been operating off the coast while he was filming, which had heightened the tension surrounding this production and no doubt made Washington listen especially carefully to what its tenuous ally in Brazil wanted.

With Welles himself destroyed (which some who themselves were not called "boy genius" probably didn't mind a bit), the film itself became irrelevant. It had served its purpose, murky as it was, of bonding Brazil and the US closer together than ever - though, ironically, by being against Welles. The background of all this infighting was quickly and conveniently forgotten by just about everyone else, but certainly not by Welles. Most of the film is lost, because it was from a "failed project" and nobody but Welles had any interest in preserving the evidence of the political hit on a respected director (Welles actually tried to save the film he had shot, but he ran out of money). Some survived, but not necessarily the best parts or enough to sustain a narrative.

As for the film itself, there isn't much of a "story." Basically, the anthology concept disappears and we are left simply with the story of the four fishermen (one of whom drowned during filming). It is a tale of some ordinary, poor Brazilians who do something extraordinary. But the film is important because it is full of the magnificent Welles touches and sheer humanity that he brought so effortless to film - and, of course, because it was true and reflected well on the Brazilian people. I particularly recall a shot of the fishermen, in the film's concluding segment, walking down a lonely Brazilian street. At first we are near them - then the camera pulls back and we see these tiny figures advancing into a huge city. How easy a shot is that to conceptualize, after the fact? But you will struggle to find such obvious, perfect metaphors in the work of others.

It's All True Orson Welles
Orson Welles and his crew during the filming of "It's All True."

In a way, as the documentary portion of this film makes clear, this project cost Welles dearly. It ruined his chances of creating masterpiece after masterpiece like a Hitchcock or a Billy Wilder.  However, he was the one who achieved the lasting victory. Long after Vargas had committed suicide and Rockefeller had died of a heart attack while in flagrante delicto, the people of Brazil were comparing Orson Welles to Martin Luther King for his attempts to bring the plight of the working poor to the public's attention. The 1993 premiere of "It's All True" made the front pages in Brazil. To this day, you may not find a more admiring group of Welles fans than you will in certain obscure precincts of Brazil - and all because of a film project that "failed" and cost Welles a huge chunk of his career. There are much worse outcomes in life than becoming a national hero in a country you never intended to visit in the first place.

It's All True Orson Welles
Orson Welles during the production of "It's All True."

You and I may righteously admire Mr. Welles because he made great art - there is no real dispute about that. The Brazilians, however, also admire him because Welles actually did something for them above and beyond what he had to do - and for which he suffered horribly - to help them in their daily lives. He got out their story, but more importantly, he cared about their story and did something about it. And that, my friend, is how you become a national hero.

I recommend this film to those who are not looking for a standard "story" film, but rather for some insight into a true talent and some examples of his genius. It is well worth the trouble.


Holiday in Handcuffs (2007) - Nice TV Movie with Attractive Stars

Movie poster  Holiday in Handcuffs 2007
"Holiday in Handcuffs" (2007).

"Holiday in Handcuffs" (2007), directed by Ron Underwood, is a fine TV movie about enduring the holidays, and how sometimes we have to be forced to realize what we really need. This is all breaking down barriers, which is a primitive process not always best served by normal social rules designed to protect people. One can think of this as the gender-reversed version of Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo '66," in which his character kidnaps the Christina Ricci character. "Holiday in Handcuffs," though, is much brighter and bouncier, befitting an ABC Family presentation.

Melissa Joan Hart in Holiday in Handcuffs 2007
Joan looking desperate in "Holiday in "Handcuffs."

"Holiday in Handcuffs" introduces us to Gertrude 'Trudie' Chandler and her slightly wacky family and their charming idiosyncrasies. Everything just leads us to the conclusion that, whatever we are, that's all right. If you want to call that a feel-good movie, or a chick flick, or simply a charming holiday film with potential, well, you'd be on the right track with any of those descriptions. Quite an inoffensive film where switching the traditional roles of practically all of the main characters is what makes it work.

Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez in Holiday in Handcuffs 2007
Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez make a cute couple in "Holiday in Handcuffs."

Now, please don't go into this expecting anything more than what it is, which is a low-key vehicle made to affirm how, regardless of how terrible things may seem at the moment, they really aren't so bad if you just keep going. There aren't any real plot surprises, there isn't any real drama, all plays out in that standard TV-comedy fashion. But it's a cut above the standard fare, you just have to be in the right mood to appreciate, well, the mood.

Melissa Joan Hart Holiday in Handcuffs 2007
Melissa Joan Hart looking frazzled in "Holiday in Handcuffs."

Melissa Joan Hart is perfect as the lead, under-achieving "Trudie who needs a date for the holiday, so she kidnaps a guy who looks the part and brings him home. Lucille Ball she's not, but she has her own style that suits this kind of set-up wonderfully. If you want someone who can pout, and be sarcastic, and then act like a poor lost down-on-her-luck waif, well, she knows how to do it. Some may comment that she's no longer a teenager, and perhaps these waifish roles are a bit much now, but I think it makes her adorable and is right for the character, who is meant to be a bit past her glory days. You sympathize with her, no matter what crazy thing she pulls off, because it's all due to her good-hearted natural impulses. Mario Lopez is genial as always as her prey, playing the object of her affections handily, though he does seem a bit self-conscious when the female wish-fulfillment  narrative goes overboard and he must preen in beefcake glory.

June Lockhart in Holiday in Handcuffs 2007
June Lockhart plays "Grandma." 

The supporting cast is good, though Trudie's sister (Vanessa Lee Evigan) is under-drawn and her brother (Kyle Howard) unfortunately becomes an obvious cliché. Markie Post is great as the comically conflicted mom, while Timothy Bottoms does his best to channel the oblivious dad of the Chevy Chase "Vacation" series. Legendary June Lockhart as the obligatory dotty grandma (another "Vacation" resemblance) is wonderful, a true pro, gleefully having fun with a pure stereotype role which is best summed up by a comment made about her, "Is she having a Civil War flashback?"

Melissa Joan Hart Holiday in Handcuffs 2007
The frizzy hair look has to go, Joan....

Anyway, it's all good, clean fun and perhaps will let you think for a spell that we're all just fine, doing what comes naturally.  



Hard Times (1975) - Terrific Tough Guy Film

Hard Times 1975
"Hard Times" (1975).

Mood, dark, atmospheric, terrific performances, insight into the nitty gritty side of survival - if you enjoy watching that, you will love "Hard Times" (1975), starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Chaney ready to fight Hard Times 1975
Speed (James Coburn) coaching Chaney (Charles Bronson).

"Hard Times," directed by Walter Hill for Columbia, stars Charles Bronson as "Chaney," a mysterious loner riding the rails during the Great Depression. Chaney is self-sufficient but needs to make a few bucks. He happens upon Speed (James Coburn), a mouthy bare-knuckles fight manager barely getting by. Together, presumably but not necessarily to their ultimate mutual advantage, they go into business. Jill Ireland, Bronson's real-life wife, is around as a possible love interest for Chaney.

Chaney swinging at an opponent Hard Times 1975
Bare-knuckle brawling is intense, and Charles Bronson gives it his all.

"Hard Times" fits into several genres. First and foremost, it's the ultimate tough-guy film. Everything about "Hard Times" reeks of testosterone. While everybody lives on the edge of the law, there still is a clear code of conduct that is inviolable and enforced by cold, hard cash and brute force (as exemplified by what happens to someone who willfully violates that code, the unfortunate Pettibon (a sneering Edward Walsh)). The resolution, as is usually the case in these "honor" films, comes down to saving a fallen comrade. While the subject of the film is fighting, and so the story is crammed full of violence, the real underlying current is about respect. And, when you come right down to it, that's what tough guy films are also always about, getting respect and how you earn it.

Michael McGuire as Gandif Hard Times 1975
Doing a deal before the big fight in "Hard Times."

Second, this is a Depression film that is reminiscent of several other films of that time that convey a similar atmosphere ("Emperor of the North," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They," "Bonnie and Clyde," and "Paper Moon" all come quickly to mind). There are fantastic shots of paddle-wheelers, fancy cars of the period, and other little touches that are used to great effect to transport you back to that time. Of course, when you compare a retro film like this with films about the gritty side of life actually made during the Depression (see "Wild Boys," for instance), you realize that "Hard Times" is idealized and sanitized. It is no less enjoyable for that.

Chaney trying to seduce a girl Hard Times 1975
Chaney (Charles Bronson) on the make in "Hard Times."

Third, this is a film about relationships. No, not male-female ones, there is very little of that, and the women unfortunately all are portrayed as either prostitutes or shrews. The relationships are between friends (Coburn and Strother Martin, in yet another fabulous character role), business partners (Coburn and Bronson, who aren't friends, but have a personal bond that extends beyond mere self interest), and enemies (Coburn owes loan sharks, and has a continuing relationship with one of them, Gandil (Michael McGuire), and with other gangsters).

Bronson as Chaney Hard Times 1975
Chaney grappling with a sneering fighter in "Hard Times."

Despite all the drama, the film makes clear that whether these fellows work together or against each other, they all realize that they need each other to get along. So, even when one guy's fighter loses, everyone is OK with it (usually) as long as it is all done above-board or at least with honor. Breaking those rules by cheating or scamming is a very bad thing and requires retribution and restitution. But, that's still just part of the game and it is understood by everyone that some will attempt to cheat and scam. The rules and their enforcement are essential to keep the whole business going. As is said at the end, "The next best thing to playing and winning, is playing and losing."

James Coburn as Speed Hard Times 1975
Speed watching his investment in "Hard Times."

There are other key elements - it is classic Coburn/Bronson, it has a sentimental air as shown with the bit about the cat at the end, there are great supporting performances by the likes of the terrific Bruce Glover playing a mob enforcer - but the above should provide a good idea about what to expect. If you are looking for a classic film about hard men and why they are like that, go out of your way to see this film.

DVD Cover Hard Times 1975
"Hard Times" 1975).


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Elvis and June: A Love Story (2002) - That summer wind, came blowin' in, from across the waves.....

Elvis and June: A Love Story
"Elvis and June: A Love Story."

"Elvis and June: A Love Story" (2002), a tale of Elvis Presley's 1956 romance with a local beauty queen, June Juanico, is for Elvis fans, for sure.  But it also is a fascinating look at what happens when an ordinary guy gets hit with sudden stardom. If you're Elvis, you stay true to your mom, and your dad, and your teen romance - up to a point. This hard-to-find film examines just where that point is.

Elvis and June: A Love Story June Juanico
June Juanico with Elvis' Cadillac.

"Elvis and June" apparently came about by chance, when a researcher found an old 20-minute 8mm film stored away in an attic 40 years after it was shot. The color film was shot by a local, Eddie Bellman (the boyfriend of June's mother), and revolves around a boating trip the Presley family took together with June in Biloxi. The focus naturally is on rock legend Elvis, who already was famous at the time, and for that reason alone is of interest. However, it is a surprisingly detailed examination of a passing romance and the effect that sudden fame and time have on it. It is a very real story, and it looks behind the curtain of success to show how real people - not necessarily celebrities - interact. And don't think for a second that this paints Elvis in an unflattering or unfair light - it doesn't. I've personally seen teenagers who simply went away to college that treated their male/female high school sweethearts much worse than Elvis treated June (according to her). Elvis Presley had class and style, and that shines through here.

Elvis and June: A Love Story Elvis Presley
Elvis and friend engaging in some water sports.

Elvis is on the rise, a hot young singer on the cusp of mega-stardom. But he isn't quite there yet. Locally famous, he is not yet the national celebrity and movie star that he would become by the following year. One day, at a local performance, he sees the local beauty queen, June Juanico, and arranges a meeting. From there, a romance blossoms, and the families get involved and everyone participates to one extent or another.

Elvis and June: A Love Story Elvis Presley

This is a summer romance writ large. It may be the tritest of clichés, but summer romances rarely survive into the fall, and this one didn't, either. After some memorable excursions, most notably a filmed fishing trip (that also apparently involved some water skiing) involving Elvis; the beauty queen and their families, Elvis is called away to Hollywood and essentially never returns. Everything is told in the first person, by the people who experienced the situation, which gives this film an edge that cuts through the celebrity factor and makes this a very real tale.

Elvis and June: A Love Story Elvis Presley June Juanico
Elvis, June, and Elvis' parents.

Unfortunately, the one key voice that is absent, save for some contemporaneous radio recordings that essentially deny the entire tale, is that of Elvis himself. But since everyone who does comment treats him with obvious reverence, it is difficult to see how this detracts from the film at all, as they bend over backwards to be fair to him, perhaps sometimes at their own expense. The evidence of what happened speaks for itself and needs no additional confirmation.

Elvis and June: A Love Story Elvis Presley

This is not the Elvis you would know from the celebrity biographies. He is a polite young man who addresses people as "Sir" and "Madam" and who is tender and affectionate. However, one can well read a bit deeper and see a flirtatious young man following his hormones a little too deeply for everyone's good. The wonder is that Elvis seemed to feel a sense of obligation to the young woman well past the point where he obviously had moved on to other attractive young things, and made a last, feeble stab at continuing his relationship despite drastically changed circumstances. This is hardly a story unique to Elvis, and thus has a sort of universality to it which makes this more than simply a quick biographical sketch, but also less than that, because the story is so mundane and almost banal.

Elvis and June: A Love Story Elvis Presley June Juanico
Elvis Presley and June Juanico.

A few caveats are in order here.  I will not go so far as to say this lovely young woman later simply tried to cash in on Elvis' brief affection for her, but anything is possible in this grubby world in which we live. She was a local beauty queen herself, out there working it, so it's not as if he found her in a convent or something.  Also, we have no corroboration for certain key parts of the tale aside from the (then) young lady's word, and Elvis, ahem, isn't talking, so swallow this tale at your own risk. Still, it all appears to be legit. In any event, I don't really blame June for writing a book, getting a movie made, and all that goes along with that kind of publicity ride - she didn't do anything until the movie was discovered. June Juanico was lovely, Elvis had a thing for her, she was part of Elvis' life, and people like to know those details about the King. It is what it is.

Elvis and June: A Love Story June Juanico
No question, June Juanico was a very pretty girl.

It isn't that difficult to spot some parallels in this story with Budd Schulberg's "A Face In the Crowd" (1957), which tells a similar tale on a vastly greater scale. There is almost certainly no connection at all between that film's story and Elvis', but watch the two films and see if you can spot the same similarities that I did. You might be surprised.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Unforgiven (1992) - "'Deserve's Got Nothing To Do With It"

Unforgiven: Clint Eastwood's Final Western is a Good One, and never forget, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it"

Unforgiven 1992 film poster
"Unforgiven" (1992).

"Unforgiven" (1992) is Clint Eastwood's last Western, and it is a good one. "Unforgiven" also is trite, derivative and wanders all over the place, but "Unforgiven" has something simple to say, says it, and then lets it go. You really can't ask much more from a Western like "Unforgiven." It is great seeing Clint in "Unforgiven" play an unredeemed tough guy one last time. However much you may sympathize with his quest in "Unforgiven," there is no question about one thing: Clint's character still, throughout, is nothing but a despicable killer who deserved far worse than he got. Bill Munny looks good only in comparison to his opponents in "Unforgiven," and that's not saying much.

Bill Munny Clint Eastwood Unforgiven 1992
Bill Munny retired from gunfighting for this in "Unforgiven."

I saw "Unforgiven" on it its first run, and "Unforgiven" was memorable. "Unforgiven" came out during a unique period in American history, right after the fall of the USSR and the First Gulf War but during a painful Recession. In some ways the US was riding high, but at the same time the country was the captive of its own painful vulnerabilities and imperfections. That is the story of "Unforgiven," transmuted to the Old West.

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"English Bob" (Richard Harris) and W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek).

A tough farmer, Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood), is asked at the beginning of "Unforgiven" by a Madam (Frances Fisher) from a nearby town to come and avenge a horrible infraction committed against one of her girls, Delilah (Anna Levine for no reason. There is a reward, but that is not enough motivation for a man like Munny, for Munny has retired from the pain and grief of trying to make the world conform to his vision of it, but his sense of honor and dignity is offended when he hears that the working girl was scarred on her face by a brute. He saddles up and collects a couple of comrades to see what he can do.

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Bill Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, hasn't come to talk - well, he hasn't come to talk very much.

The key to "Unforgiven" is to learn exactly what Clint Eastwood's character, Bill Munny, stands for. At first we don't know what is special about him, or why anyone would approach him for help. Bill Munny is just a simple farmer, and not a very successful one at that. But Munny is taken by a story of a prostitute who was unnecessarily and cruelly disfigured in a town called 'Big Whiskey.' While a bounty is involved, it's as insignificant to the quest as the payment in "True Grit." There are much larger issues at stake. There is an underlying air of chivalry that comes straight out of "True Grit": a wronged woman demands justice, vengeance is required, and the worthiness of those involved is irrelevant. Munny thus hooks up with an inexperienced young partner (an obvious commentary on the Glen Campbell role in "True Grit") and his reliable old comrade Ned (Morgan Freeman) and off they go.

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Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett, played by Gene Hackman. Hackman won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Gene Hackman is "Little Bill," a pompous windbag of a sheriff who rules Big Whiskey with the proverbial iron fist. Little Bill is riding high, and delights in not just beating his victims, but degrading them. Richard Harris ("English Bob"), a phony dime store novel hero, unwisely ventures into town accompanied, improbably, by his very own biographer (Saul Rubinek). English Bob doesn't last long there, and he is lucky to escape with his life (but no longer with his biographer).
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This is as iconic a shot as you will find of Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven." While "Unforgiven" did not give him an Oscar for Best Actor, the film won "Best Picture," and Eastwood won "Best Director." 

Perceptive and clever despite his own faults, Little Bill knows there are hired guns out to kill him. He captures and interrogates Ned (Morgan Freeman, then kills him. When Munny is told this, he at first appears to simply accept it as something that happens in their line of work. Watch, however, his reaction change when he is told that Little Bill put Ned's corpse on display with a big sign saying "This is What Happens to Assassins Around Here." That reaction, one of the most dramatic in any Clint role, sets in motion the climax of the film. We also learn at this point that Munny himself is not, can never be, and cannot consider himself better than anyone else. That fact is important because it shows the source of his humbleness, the demons that haunt him and why he is driven to drink. His character is not the issue here, though, only what it impels him to do.

Clint Eastwood Unforgiven 1992
"Anyone who wants to live better go out the back right now." - "Unforgiven."

Right after the 2001 terrorist attacks, I was riding in an airport van back to a hotel after being grounded. Rumors were rife, but everyone knew the world trade center was gone. Nobody knew what to say, but a fellow in the back said simply, "Someone's gonna pay for this." That is precisely what "Unforgiven" is all about, a uniquely American idea that when somebody crosses a certain line, nothing on earth will prevent that person from suffering just retribution.

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Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in "Unforgiven."

Munny has another companion in "Unforgiven," another flawed man simply called "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), but Munny rides into town and wreaks vengeance on his own because it is just something he has to do. It is not giving anything away to say that when Munny and Little Bill finally meet at the end of "Unforgiven," there is a brief but epic exchange. "I don't deserve to die like this," Little Bill says as Munny contemplates killing him. Little Bill is pleading his case at this turning point in "Unforgiven," as a member in good standing of the community. He thinks his entire life's work should be taken into account before he is sentenced for what both of them know are unpardonable crimes. In other words - Little Bill is asking for some human charity and kindness, neither of which he has shown to others.

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"Unforgiven" (1992).

The stage is set for "Unforgiven" to reach its true climax - the passing of a sentence on "Little Bill" Daggett. Munny replies:
Deserve's got nothing to do with it. 
Before I go any further, I want to point out that Eastwood said a very similar line in "Hang 'Em High" (1968). In that film, he says to the character played by Pat Hingle:
God's got nothing to do with it.
I don't think the similar lines are a coincidence. Perhaps David Webb Peoples, who wrote the screenplay for "Unforgiven," borrowed that line, or maybe he didn't and it was Eastwood's idea. Only they know.

The whole meaning of the Munny character and, indeed, "Unforgiven" is encapsulated in that one line, in the same way that, say, "A Few Good Men" comes down to "You can't handle the truth."  Munny unhesitatingly rejects the sheriff's defense out of hand in "Unforgiven" while still acknowledging it and his own fallibility. Here we get to the film's murky "point," which requires interpretation and generates disagreement. Little Bill unfortunately had broken a tacit code of tough men: you may kill people that you must, but you don't take pleasure in their humiliation. A lady of the evening must not be deprived of the only thing she could be proud of, a harmless visitor should not be unnecessarily disgraced, a dead but honorable foe should not be publicly mocked. That sort of sadism shall be, in a word, "Unforgiven." There shall be no mitigating factors whatsoever when you cross that line. "Unforgiven" gives voice to the true unspoken code of the West, a code that survives to this day - a demand for common decency.

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Munny, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett).
wrote a perceptive, naturalistic script in "Unforgiven" about a man in the twilight of his active life. Anyone who can't see similarities between "Unforgiven" and other Westerns like the aforementioned "True Grit" simply isn't looking hard enough. The truth is, though, that all Westerns have common themes, and "Unforgiven" is simply following in the same footsteps. There is nothing wrong with pounding the eternal verities one more time in a film like "Unforgiven."

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Clint Eastwood collects his two Oscars for "Unforgiven."

"Unforgiven" reflects its times. You have America in 1992, with all its flaws and weaknesses, finally kicking Saddam Hussein out of his intended conquest, Kuwait, and Gorbachev finally tearing down that wall as President Ronald Reagan demanded. None of those things were achieved by perfect people, just simple souls doing dirty jobs. Saddam Hussein was "Unforgiven," just like Little Bill. At the film's climax, Eastwood rather ostentatiously places in the background what appears from a distance to be a modern American flag. The point of doing this appears to be to emphasize that, just like Munny, the US may be flawed, but ultimately it does the right thing and sets things right.

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The stars and stripes waving proudly in "Unforgiven."

Bill Munny, vile murderer and failure, rights some simple wrongs, and that is all anyone can do. As he rides out of town at the end of "Unforgiven," you feel as if something greater than a man is present. It is not Munny riding that horse into the night in "Unforgiven," but the eternal Avenger of honor and decency in this most humble of human forms. Munny's final words temporarily bring the world back into simple balance at the conclusion of "Unforgiven." And, sometimes that's the best you can hope for.

Below it the trailer for "Unforgiven."

"I don't deserve this."