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Sunday, July 29, 2012

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

Film Poster Star Trek First Contact 1996
I am an old school Trekker, and am not 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 this science fiction film 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. 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 James Cromwell gives a big league performance, better than any seen in the 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 fan.
Picard searching Star Trek First Contact 1996
If I don't get that Yankess 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 Borg
So, with that huge fraction of the audience satisfied and out of the way, let's look at the film as a film. "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. The original series had a fast, bright, lively theme that got your pulse racing. As the franchise has progressed and become an institution, like McDonald's or something, the themes have gotten slower and slower and slower. 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.
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. Zephram 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 (she tries to kill the Enterprise crew at first, then faints aggressively upon learning their identities, how precious), but 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 (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 this.
First flight Star Trek First Contact 1996
A Magic Carpet Ride
There is a 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?). He 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 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 - two guys casually shaking hands
An enjoyable romp for fans, just an OK time waster for everyone else.


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

Make no mistake, this is a circa 1943 film, not a 1993 one.  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 the some 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.

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 waling 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.

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. 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.

Throughout his life, Welles held a grudge about the incidents behind this production.  He was asked ("ordered" is perhaps slightly overstating it) to drop everything (and the list of his active projects is staggering) at the start of World War II and shore up the United States' relations with Brazil (and, by extension, with all of South America).  What the US government, the studio, and the Brazilian government wanted (but apparently never made crystal clear to Welles, they just "assumed," ahem), 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.

All very nice, in theory.  There is many a slip twixt the lip and the cup, however.  Welles did film the Carnival, but then he started thinking for himself - after all, he was the 'boy genius."  Rather than look at this as a chance for a vacation - as almost anyone else would have done, and as his detractors over the past 70 years falsely have maintained he actually did - he started listening to the people and developing story ideas based on what he heard.  How radical!

The main story idea Welles developed centered around an epic journey by four fishermen to the Capital to speak to President Vargas about how they were being exploited.  And they were being exploited, there is absolutely no question about that.  He 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 with Welles' employer RKO, Welles' supportive boss 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 didn't get to direct again until after the war, several years later.  It wasn't called a blacklist, but he was as blacklisted as anyone.  Even then, his formerly Olympian reputation was completely shot, at least with studio executives who assigned projects.

His anger and bitterness lingered.  Thirty years later, during interviews, he would suddenly, angrily and almost randomly drop the name "Nelson Rockefeller" (during his NY Governor/VP days) 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, Welles would on occasion mention 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." 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.

In a way, as the documentary portion of this film makes clear, Welles lost big early with this project, ruining 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.  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 him a huge chunk of his career.

You and I may righteously admire Mr. Welles because he made great art - there is no real dispute about that.  The Brazilians, however, admire him because they know he 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.  Which do you think is more significant admiration?  Which legacy would you rather leave behind?  And all because of a film that never got finished and nobody ever heard of!

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) is a good 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.
Melissa Joan Hart in Holiday in Handcuffs 2007
Joan looking desperate
This is a film about slightly wacky people 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
Quite a cute couple
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
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
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....
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

DVD Cover Hard Times 1975
Mood, dark, atmospheric, terrific performances, insight into the nitty gritty side of survival - if you enjoy watching that, you will love this film.
Chaney ready to fight Hard Times 1975
Speed coaching Chaney
In "Hard Times" (1975), directed by Walter Hill for Columbia, Charles Bronson is "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 named Speed. Together, presumably but not necessarily to their ultimate mutual advantage, they go into business. Jill Ireland is around as a possible love interest for Chaney.
Chaney swinging at an opponent Hard Times 1975
Bare-knuckle brawling is intense
This film 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
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
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
 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
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.

Below is the theatrical trailer.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

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

This 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 film examines just where that point is.

This is about Elvis, 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).  The man had class and style, and that shines through here.

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.

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 skiiing) 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. 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.

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.

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 whole at your own risk.  In any event, I don't really blame her for writing a book, getting a movie made, and all that goes along with that kind of publicity ride.  She was lovely, Elvis had a thing for her, we all need a little something put aside when we get up there in years, and that is where it lays.

No question, 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"

DVD artwork Unforiven 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 pigs Unforgiven 1992
Bill Munny retired from gunfighting for this
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.
English Bob Unforiven 1992
"English Bob" and W.W. Beauchamp
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.
Clint Eastwood Unforiven 1992
Bill Munny hasn't come to talk
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.
Sheriff Daggett Unforiven 1992
Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett
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).
Clint Eastwood Unforgiven 1992
This is as iconic a shot as you will find of Clint Eastwood
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 holding gun Unforgiven 1992
"Anyone who wants to live better go out the back right now."
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.
Clint Eastwood Bill Munny Unforiven 1992
Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny

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. "'Deserve's got nothing to do with it," Munny replies. 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." Little Bill is pleading his case at the end of "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. Munny unhesitatingly rejects that defense out of hand in "Unforgiven" while still acknowledging it and his own fallibility. 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 "Unforgiven." There shall be no mitigating factors whatsoever when you cross that line. "Unforgiven gave voice to the true unspoken code of the West, a code that survives to this day.

Munny Ned Schofield Kid Unforiven 1992
Munny, Ned, The Schofield Kid
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."
Clint Eastwood holding Oscars Unforgiven 1992
Clint Eastwood collects his two Oscars for "Unforgiven"
So, you have America, with all its flaws and weaknesses, finally kicking Saddam Hussein out of his intended conquest, Kuwait, and Gorbachev finally tearing down that wall as Reagan demanded. None of those things were achieved by perfect people, just simple souls trying to do what's right. Saddam Hussein was "Unforgiven," just like Little Bill. 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."


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Two Moon Junction (1988) - Sex-Drenched Tale of Southern Passion

Sherilyn Fenn as a Good Girl Gone Bad in "Two Moon Junction"

Film Poster Two Moon Junction 1988

The 1980s was the decade of sexy small-town period flicks revolving around the old "how do I keep my sexy desires a secret from everyone but still get what I want?" "Two Moon Junction" (1988), an erotic drama directed in workmanlike fashion by Zalman King (who also helped come up with the story) for DDM Film Corporation, is right there at the cream of the crop, along with "Mischief" and "Dangerous Liaisons." For a mindless peek under those racy covers, you'll be hard-pressed to do better than "Two Moon Junction." Either you like that sort of thing or you don't. Only you know on which side of that bed you lie.

Sherilyn Fenn and Richard Tyson Two Moon Junction 1988
Not difficult to see what April sees in Perry

I won't mislead you about this. Here is the bottom line in a nutshell: if you aren't looking for a sexy romance that showcases some very attractive folks and related lustiness, "Two Moon Junction" definitely is not the film for you. The flirting and sex is the only point to "Two Moon Junction." Otherwise "Two Moon Junction" is pointless unless you are a fanatic Burl Ives fan or need to see every last performance by some of the other fading stars who make surprising cameo appearances (more below). What "Two Moon Junction" does right, though, it does very, very right indeed.

Sherilyn Fenn Two Moon Junction 1988
What's a girl got to do to get a little action around here? Oh, the CARNIVAL is in town, alrighty then!!

Sherilyn Fenn stars as April (very few last names are provided or needed in "Two Moon Junction"), a young woman just out of school. April is dispassionately destined for marriage to her cipher of a rich hometown beau (Martin Hewitt in a truly thankless role). She feels something lacking in her life, now what could it be? If your mind is in the gutter, you'll figure it right out. We get a pretty good idea when she does a "Porky's" in the gym shower (she does the spying). Turns out that what she needs isn't a shampoo and nails treatment. Instead, it is that handsome carny Perry (Richard Tyson) who just blew into town with his dog and bizarre friends. Perry only lives for the moment, and you've seen his type before, walking around with long hair and a bottle of Jack Daniels handy. Perry is so attractive to the ladies that he has his own young groupies. Too much is riding on April's dynastic wedding (a huge estate goes to her and so on and so forth) for her to blow boyfriend off and follow her "passion." So, what's a girl in Two Moon Junction (the town's name) to do?

Sherilyn Fenn blindfolded Two Moon Junction 1988
These two like to play

Believe me, if you don't have any idea what April should do, well, this may not be the flick for you. She figures that equation out in a hurry.

Sherilyn Fenn and Richard Tyson Two Moon Junction 1988
Showers are a continuing motif in this movie

Very few people are going to watch a film like "Two Moon Junction" for the plot (it comes full circle in a showery kind of way), because we've seen it all before. Instead, "Two Moon Junction" is enjoyable for the atmosphere, the characterizations and the nudity and sex. There's plenty of those things in "Two Moon Junction." In fact, there's so much nudity and sex in "Two Moon Junction" that they become over-done. You may find yourself actually wishing there was a plot worth watching, since now and then there are tantalizing glimpses of what could have been. Only when a Deputy points a shotgun at one of the leads do we feel anything remotely similar to dramatic tension in "Two Moon Junction." That melodramatic cloud passes quickly, though, before it can introduce a pesky plot line to get in the way of the point of "Two Moon Junction": the sex and nudity.

Sherilyn Fenn Two Moon Junction 1988
That is one serious hair style, Sherilyn. Going to a gay bar?

Assorted potentially interesting characters appear, say a few words, and then enter blissful oblivion before they get in the way of the sex and nudity. One imagines the cutting room floor was a major fire hazard. Sherilyn at one point has an "Academy Award moment" and forcefully implies that she has a hidden agenda, but it turns out she's bluffing. The only agenda she has is what's hidden under her elegant slacks. A shouting match, a brief note left on a mirror, then, we're back to the atmosphere, the characterizations and the nudity and sex.

Sherilyn Fenn showering Two Moon Junction 1988
Sherilyn spends a lot of time in the shower in "Two Moon Junction"

One of the things that makes this a cult classic is the numerous absolutely inexplicable and startling cameos. That is not unusual for this type of rent-payer, but "Two Moon Junction" goes way, way over the top with its quickie appearances by actors who had seen better days elsewhere. We get Kristy McNicol, Herve Villechaize (sadly, his final film), Don Galloway getting one of his few paychecks since "Ironside," Louise Fletcher, Oscar nominee Juanita Moore (she was in "Imitation of Life" for goodness sakes!), and a young Milla Jovovich (her first film). All are completely and utterly wasted except McNicol, who does an energetic wild-girl impression, and one-time Academy Award winner Fletcher, who is appropriately intimidating as "Two Moon Junction"'s matriarch heavy.

Burl Ives Richard Tyson Two Moon Junction 1988
Burl Ives plays the town sheriff who realizes what is going on

But we haven't gotten to the true coup de grace, the bit which will have you doing a double-take: mother of God if it isn't Burl Ives (also an Oscar winner) playing the henchman in his final film role. This would only have been better as a camp-fest if they could have gotten ol' Burl (and he absolutely looks like he is on his last legs) to sing "Holly Jolly Christmas" or "On Top of Old Smokey" (I could make a truly tasteless joke about that one here, but I mercifully will spare you). The minimal soundtrack with pop tunes by the likes of George Thorogood and Billy Preston is pretty good in an 80's sort of way despite that unfortunate omission of Burl Ives not singing... anything. Seriously, "Two Moon Junction" plays as if whoever was randomly passing through the studio commissary that week was drafted to play a scene or two while their steak was cooking.

Sherilyn Fenn Richard Tyson Two Moon Junction 1988
The look of love... or lust

The cameos are amusing, but they are simply curiosities, kind of like Art Garfunkel turning up in Sherilyn Fenn's later, also completely campy, "Boxing Helena." The point is the sex and nudity, as I keep repeating because that is what you need to know. In "Two Moon Junction," Sherilyn Fenn literally spends over half of her time on camera either completely naked, half-naked or wearing outfits in which she struts around as if she might as well be naked. Co-star Richard Tyson must not have owned many shirts, because he spends about 75% of his screen time bare-chested. If you like that sort of thing (I know, I keep saying that, but it is THE deciding line on this film), this film delivers. It delivers BIG TIME. Fenn and Tyson flirt like crazy (the best part of the film, and expertly done, see the clip below), Tyson self-consciously strikes as many Ralph Lauren model poses as possible, the pair takes motorcycle rides for their secret rendezvous, they meet by the lake at midnight, they take showers together, and so on and so forth. Then they get down to it.

Sherilyn Fenn in one-piece bathing suit Two Moon Junction 1988
Sherilyn Fenn, truly looking stunning in a black one-piece

Sherilyn Fenn does a great job playing the good girl/bad girl thing, but at times she looks unaccountably uncomfortable. Fenn weirdly ends her last sex scene with a crying fit (after doffing her clothes about as quickly as is humanly possible and roll, roll, rolling around in the hay without any restraint whatsoever). After "Two Moon Junction" came out, Sherilyn Fenn tried to pass off the inexplicable sobbing as deriving from the humiliation of having to take her clothes off. Perhaps she didn't read the script before taking the part? The stage direction "Sherilyn undresses" must have been on every other page! Note that Sherilyn Fenn also chose a few years later to pose for Playboy, and "Boxing Helena" around that same time was basically just a showcase of the naked (but dwindling, you have to see it to understand what I mean) Fenn. What was really running through Sherilyn Fenn's mind? Only she knows for sure, but if she was uncomfortable with nudity in the slightest, this was a very strange role for her to accept in the first place.

Sherilyn Fenn Two Moon Junction 1988
Sherilyn Fenn has some sleazy moments in "Two Moon Junction"

Sherilyn Fenn and Richard Tyson show off their extremely attractive bodies throughout (though Sherilyn Fenn sports some of the most unattractive Butch hairstyles seen outside of gay bars). Richard Tyson does run rings around Sherilyn Fenn in the acting department, but this isn't exactly Olympics-caliber competition he's up against. Seriously, folks, if you are watching "Two Moon Junction" for the acting, you picked the wrong movie.

Richard Tyson Two Moon Junction 1988
Richard Tyson has a lot of 'splainin' to do

On the subject of acting, the second (and mercifully last) time Sherilyn Fenn tries to act out a hissy fit in "Two Moon Junction," it looks like even she doesn't believe she can pull it off convincingly. Her histrionics die stillborn, like the plot. Thankfully, Sherilyn Fenn doesn't bother attempting a Southern accent at any point, which would have been a disaster. One or two others, like Galloway, try it and wind up sounding like Colonel Sanders. After listening to Tyson and Fenn going on and on in their flat Midwestern monotones, it perversely is the ones trying to make the effort to speak in the proper accent who wind up sounding like they are in the wrong movie (one is reminded of what Olivier said about Marilyn Monroe after filming "The Prince and the Showgirl," that he would be great in the first take, but she would always blow it, and by the time she finally got it right on the fourth or fifth take, his edge was gone). Sherilyn Fenn exclaims, "You frighten me," and it sounds like "Pass the milk, please." You probably won't be watching Sherilyn Fenn's (usually naked) scenes and be thinking about her oral, er, vocal talents, though.

Sherilyn Fenn and Martin Hewitt in Two Moon Junction (1988)
The "happy" couple
I know I am having some fun with "Two Moon Junction," but I really like this film. Every time I watch it, I'm amazed at what they got away with in the '80s (if you like this one, see the aforementioned "Mischief" as well). "Two Moon Junction" is that rare mainstream film that openly broaches the topic of the female libido (which word actually comes up at the one really amusing and true-to-real-life, um, junction of this film). In fact, the female libido is the main theme.

Sherilyn Fenn in Two Moon Junction 1988
Well, he could have just slipped a note under the door....

As I said at the top, there are a handful of truly classic shirt-rippers from the '80s, and "Two Moon Junction" is right there. All kidding aside, I'm a big Sherilyn Fenn fan, and this is her best role. Get the DVD and adjust the settings for full-screen effect, you will see a lot more than you thought you would. This is a top, top choice for couples on a lazy evening.

Below is one of the best scenes from the film, when a bashful, sexually frustrated Fenn is drawn to Tyson's animal magnetism like a moth to a flame: