Saturday, May 15, 2021

EASY RIDER (1969)

Title: EASY RIDER

Year of Release: 1969

Director: Dennis Hopper

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Synopsis: Two freewheeling bikers ride across the United States seeking freedom and to find themselves, but meet a tragic end.

Within a film history context: Films which have bikers as central characters can be found from the earliest days of cinema. One of the most notable was Mabel Norman and Mack Sennett's silent MABEL AT THE WHEEL (1914). Here, Charles Chaplin offers Mabel Normand a ride on his motorcycle in this zany comedy studded with other comics such as Chester Conklin, and co-director Mack Sennett. Another comedy was SHERLOCK JR. (1924), both starring and directed by Buster Keaton. It is noteworthy for a remarkable scene where Mr Keaton rides his motorcycle over a collapsing bridge, and surpasses many other obstacles. A film with larger scope given to a motorcycle rider protagonist was Jack Lee's ONCE A JOLLY SWAGMAN (1949). In this movie, a man's passion for motorbike racing causes issues in his marriage, with Dirk Bogarde in the lead part of the professional motorbike racer. Similarly THE PACE THAT THRILLS (1952), directed by Leon Barsha also featured a biker, with romance and much action included for good measure, with Bill Williams in the lead. One of the most famous of the biker movies was Laszlo Benedek's THE WILD ONE (1953). An excellent showcase for Marlon Brando, it revolved around biker gangs, and their impact on a small town and its residents. In an entirely different vein, exploitation was the name of the game in MOTORCYCLE GANG (1957), directed by Edward L. Cahn. It was one of American International Pictures' films on the theme, with others such as David Bradley's DRAGSTRIP RIOT (1958) also appearing around the same time. The difference between the former, and the latter was that the latter featured familiar faces such as Fay Wray and Connie Stevens in its cast. Into the 1960s came an explosion of biker-themed movies on screen, especially in the second half of the 1960s.

THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), directed by John Sturges, had scenes with Steve McQueen riding a motorbike, in this taut World War II tale. With Joseph Losey's THE DAMNED (1963), a malignant motorcycle gang cause nothing but problems for an innocent man who falls into their clutches. Elvis Presley vehicle ROUSTABOUT (1964), directed by John Rich, with Mr Presley riding, and singing on a motorcycle, was one of the main attractions in this musical romance. On the other hand, Sidney J. Furie's THE LEATHER BOYS (1964) featured several supporting biker characters as well as a biker main protagonist. More blatant in its approach was MOTORPSYCHO (1965), directed by Russ Meyer. Exploitation was the order of the day, with misogynistic bikers raping women, and causing other mayhem, but their latest crime finds them an opponent determined to bring them down. Roger Corman's THE WILD ANGELS (1966) was another exploitation film, but this time, with an excellent cast, including Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd and others, in this movie about a California biker gang, and their hell raising ways.

Further biker adventures and capers were spotlighted in other films such as, most notably, HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS (1967), directed by Richard Rush, and Daniel Haller's DEVIL'S ANGELS (1967). Revenge was the motivation for THE GLORY STOMPERS (1967), directed by Anthony Lanza, and David Hewitt's HELLS CHOSEN FEW (1968). There was also a slight trend toward female bikers in several late 1960s films, with 1968 alone sporting SHE-DEVILS ON WHEELS, directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, Maury Dexter's THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, and THE GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE, directed by Jack Cardiff, some of the envelope-pushing releases that year. Compared to these examples, EASY RIDER had in common the scenic footage of bikers traveling the country, but diverted in other surprising ways from the previous entries in the genre.

Unlike the earliest movies such as MABEL AT THE WHEEL and SHERLOCK JR., which employed biker characters in amusing scenarios, EASY RIDER, overall, was neither deeply dramatic, nor comic in any particular way. There was some humor in the film, but it was not of a broad nature, more subtle in its delivery. The supporting characters in EASY RIDER generally provided the spice, which gave the movie a balance to the scenes of biker escapades. EASY RIDER had an easy-going way about it in the style of ROUSTABOUT, with its picturesque views of the countryside, but lacked the melodrama of entries such as THE GLORY STOMPERS, and the other mid to late 1960s biker films. While many of those focused upon violent narratives with evil bikers, such as in MOTORPSYCHO, the bikers in EASY RIDER were, in complete contrast placid, and even-natured in comparison. 

Wyatt and Billy in EASY RIDER never directed violent tendencies toward anyone, but ill-feeling was aimed at them in the film, which gave the characters a more realistic backdrop than the indestructible, malevolent bikers of other examples. The trend of evils bikers can sometimes be over the top, but having the bikers under threat in EASY RIDER added refreshing emotional layers to the movie lacking in the other movies. Reaction to their treatment from other people, such as George's pointed comments, were also shown in the movie, something which many of the others either only touched upon briefly, or ignored completely. EASY RIDER's characters were also of a different caliber, thus maing them more relatable than the sometimes overwrought bikers from other examples. 

There was a contrast between the cool, calm, and collected Wyatt with the edgier, slightly suspicious Billy which worked well. Their motivations were also different from the other biker films in general which made EASY RIDER stand out in the respect. In EASY RIDER, Wyatt and Billy only sought variety, and different experiences with a variety of people on the road. It was more of an odyssey for them, especially displaying their reactions to people, and how other people in turn envisioned them. The film was more of a learning experience not only for the characters but also, the viewers, which also gave EASY RIDER a slightly sombre streak. The most poetic of the biker movie genre, EASY RIDER is memorable for its thoughtful presentation and sincere intentions, an original film that deserved its immense success.

Overview: Dennis Hopper was an actor who began his movie career as a young adult, and directed seven feature films over the space of twenty-five years. His second movie, THE LAST MOVIE (1971), was about a horse wrangler involved in the filming of a movie in Peru, and how his life immeasurably changes after being involved in this project. Critically derided at the time of its release, with poor box office takings, it hampered its director's ability to make another film for some time. Mr Hopper's third film, OUT OF THE BLUE (1980), was a total change of pace from his previous movie. The character study of a young woman obsessed with Elvis Presley and punk music, it was much better received than THE LAST MOVIE, specifically due to its direction, and performances. Grittier in content was COLORS (1988). An examination of gangs, and associated violence in Los Angeles, as seen through the eyes of a veteran policeman and his younger partner, it was well-received not only critically, but also at the box office. The opposite could be said of Dennis Hopper's next film, CATCHFIRE (1990). Despite starring Jodie Foster, and an illustrious cast in a tale of a woman pursued due to her witnessing of a Mafia killing, it did not do either good business financially, or critically. Mr Hopper's penultimate movie, THE HOT SPOT (1990) was in a similar predicament. Crime was again the focus, this time with a man robbing a bank, and becoming enmeshed not only with the police, but also, the town's female inhabitants. Dennis Hopper's last feature film, CHASERS (1994) was a comedy about two United States Navy men assigned to take a Seaman female prisoner to jail, this woman capable of doing anything to get away. EASY RIDER was Dennis Hopper's directorial debut, and one of his most insightful motion pictures.

The story of two bikers riding across America, searching for a slice of happiness, and not finding it, is well explored, and executed by the director in EASY RIDER. Dennis Hopper achieves this in a number of ways. Mr Hopper captures a time and place in the world with exactness and sensitivity, especially highlighting feelings of disenchantment, and displacement, on the part of his protagonists. The America of the late 1960s, with all of its understanding, and also, lack thereof on display, is demonstrated by Mr Hopper through his characters, with both their reactions to, and the impact they make with their presence, on the world they inhabit. Being one's self, and finding one's true self, are high on the film's aspirational radar. EASY RIDER looks at how the natural presence of its characters is threatening to certain others in the story world, and this in turn brings themes of being the outsider, racism, and other concepts to the fore. These are the strongest segments of the movie, which are the most memorable in retrospect. EASY RIDER, though, is a picture which has elements which have not held up as well over time.

While EASY RIDER has a contagious aura of freedom which is not to be discounted, especially in the many motorcycle scenes, some of the segments of the film are not as sturdy as others. In the 1960s, the commune scenes would have possibly been more relevant than now, but these definitely could have been shortened. Even though these introduce one of the many characters who ride along with Wyatt and Billy, and have a purpose in the movie, they seem to go on a little, but one part of the film is particularly enervating to watch. More so than the commune sequences, the LSD drop out scene with Wyatt, Billy and their companions is interminable. It does not add much to the film except excess weight, and, if eliminated or substantially edited, would not have been missed. Something else that subtracts from the film is the fact that Wyatt and Billy are drug dealers, which makes them somewhat less sympathetic on one level. While the tragedy of the finale is palpable, having them involved in illegal activity takes away somewhat from the devastating effect the film strives to achieve. In spite of these flaws, there are many things which recommend the film as one that must be seen by those seriously interested in cinema. EASY RIDER, on the whole, is a landmark movie that set trends in cinema, and has a definite place in cinematic history.

Acting: Three acting contributions are the most prominent in EASY RIDER. As Billy, the anxious, slightly paranoid biker, Dennis Hopper brings a nervy, jovial energy to his role, that can be contrasted with Wyatt. As Wyatt, Peter Fonda exhibits a cool, philosophical outlook that works well as the more subdued of the two bikers. The small role of boozy, curious lawyer George Hanson is made memorable by Jack Nicholson. A performer who excels in roles where he is called upon to display his dominant personality, here he is more knowing, understanding, with a vulnerability lacking from his other portrayals.

Soundtrack: EASY RIDER has an eclectic soundtrack, with an extensive collection of rock songs of the era playing as non-diegetic music. Tunes such as 'Born to be Wild', 'I Wasn't Born to Follow', and 'Kyrie Eleison', to name several examples, not only illustrate, in many cases, what is taking place onscreen, but also, immeasurably add an atmosphere of excitement, and zest, to the movie.

Mise-en-scene: Laszlo Kovacs' cinematography is first-rate, highlighting the many beautiful, rugged places which Wyatt and Billy visit on their travels. The film is shot extensively in many locales which gives the film a sense of verisimilitude, and is notable historically for showcasing locations which would be vastly different now than what they were at the time of EASY RIDER's filming.

Award-worthy performances in my opinion: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson.

Suitability for young viewers: No. Female nudity, adult themes, medium-level violence, drug use.

Overall Grade: B

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Saturday, May 1, 2021

SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981)

Title: SOUTHERN COMFORT

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Walter Hill

Genre: Action, Drama

Synopsis: A group of National Guard soldiers in the Louisiana bayous encounter Cajun locals who have anything but hospitality on their mind.

Within a film history context: Films about the United States National Guard have not been a regular feature of cinema, but have appeared in several instances. One of the most prominent was Irving Pichel's COLONEL EFFINGHAM'S RAID (1946). It was about the eponymous, retired Colonel seeking support to save the town square in his small town. The National Guard are present in scenes toward the end of the film, and also feature a major character who is a member of the National Guard. THUNDERBIRDS (1952), directed by John Auer, had characters drafted into the Oklahoma National Guard who subsequently served in World War II. In Robert Aldrich's ATTACK (1956), matters were of a different nature. Here a section of the United States National Guard was on assignment in Belgium during World War II, with many power plays between members of the infantry. A TIGER WALKS (1964), directed by Norman Tokar, presented the National Guard as the ones poised to shoot a tiger which has escaped from a circus transportation vehicle, but matters take a turn with a Sheriff becoming involved in this pursuit. The 1970s and after brought forth other depictions of the National Guard to the cinema screen.

Horror was the focus of William Claxton's NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972). The National Guard are called upon to kill giant rabbits leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake in this science fiction horror movie. In THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973), directed by Ivan Dixon, the National Guard attempt to curtail a movement founded by a black man which seeks to progress the black cause, but in a largely aggressive manner. Tom Laughlin's THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974), a continuation of the Billy Jack film series, spotlights the National Guard during the scenes of unrest in the town, and at the school in the movie's most tragic moments. CONVOY (1978), directed by Sam Peckinpah, contained scenes close to the film's end where the National Guard aim to fire at trucker Rubber Duck. In a much more extreme vein, George Romero's horror film DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) has the National Guard attempting to ward off zombies who are killing human beings at an alarming rate, with mixed success. SOUTHERN COMFORT was dissimilar from, and superior to, these film examples of National Guard characters for various reasons.

It was the first film of its time which was solely devoted to National Guard characters, with only several, but key, supporting non-military characters in the narrative. Unlike the other movies, where the National Guard protagonists were either secondary characters, or called upon to correct a situation gone wrong, such as in A TIGER WALKS, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK, and DAWN OF THE DEAD, SOUTHERN COMFORT is unique in that the characters, and their situation, entirely consume the film's running time. The audience is with them the entire way, from their initial introductions at the film's beginning, to the end. The movie takes the time to carefully establish each and every member of its National Guard in SOUTHERN COMFORT, the viewer hence intimately knowing what makes them tick, which gives the film both a thrust, a moving quality throughout, and, especially, at the end. Other features of the movie make it different from the other examples mentioned previously.

As SOUTHERN COMFORT follows a training exercise of the National Guard in the Louisiana bayous, and what happens when one of the crew makes a costly mistake, the film is more realistic than the other films in the genre for several reasons. They are neither there to assist anyone in need, in other words, to be seen as a savior, as in NIGHT OF THE LEPUS, or cast in a negative light, where they are called upon to perform an unpopular deed, such as in THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK, or CONVOY. They are in the swamps undergoing training, and armed not with heavy machine guns or artillery, but with blanks. This sets SOUTHERN COMFORT apart from others as this lack of arms is what propels the story, and causes the loss of members of the Guard, who cannot retaliate against their enemy with proper weaponry. This not only gives the characters a vulnerability in the face of their opponents, but also adds suspense to the film. Seeing how the unarmed members of the National Guard manage to survive their ordeal is what drives the movie, giving it a bittersweet quality not present in the other examples. The finest movie made about the United States National Guard, and one of the best military-themed movies ever, SOUTHERN COMFORT is an incredible, transfixing cinematic achievement.

Overview: Walter Hill has helmed twenty-one features as a director in his forty-one year career. His movies are generally action-oriented, but interwoven with a strong current of understanding for his characters, thus providing the pictures with a revealing humanistic perspective. Mr Hill's first movie, HARD TIMES (1975) was a Charles Bronson vehicle with Mr Bronson as a boxer during the American Great Depression. Next came THE DRIVER (1978), the story of a man who drives getaway cars from robberies, but with a detective hot on his trail. One of Mr Hill's most recognized works was THE WARRIORS (1979). A futuristic tale of gang warfare in New York City, it was notable for its violent content, but also, introducing many new actors to the screen. Mr Hill then traversed into western territory with his fourth movie, THE LONG RIDERS (1980). The retelling of notorious criminal Jesse James' life and his exploits with fellow members, it was also of interest for starring three of the Carradine acting brothers in main roles, being David, Keith, and Robert Carradine. Walter Hill had a great box office success with action comedy 48 HRS. (1982). Starring Eddie Murphy at the height of his fame as a paroled con assisting seasoned policeman Nick Nolte with a case, it was a popular movie that later led to a sequel with the same actors and director, ANOTHER 48. HRS (1990). Further into the 1980s, Mr Hill made a variety of projects which had mixed results at the box office.

STREETS OF FIRE (1984) was a musical starring Michael Pare, while BREWSTER'S MILLIONS (1985) was a comedy with Richard Pryor in the lead role. Mr Hill made another foray into films with a music background in CROSSROADS (1986), this time with a blues theme. It was back to action in EXTREME PREJUDICE (1987), charting the relationship of a ranger and a drug lord who were friends, but now bitter enemies. Shades of 48. HRS appeared in RED HEAT (1988), this time being a Russian policeman teaming with a detective to bring a drug kingpin to justice. Crime, though, was the main topic of JOHNNY HANDSOME (1989). Centering around a criminal who cannot quench his thirst for revenge, it starred Mickey Rourke in the main part, with support from Ellen Barkin and Morgan Freeman. Into the 1990s and beyond, Walter Hill's films were as diverse as his previous efforts. 

TRESPASS (1992) was similar to THE WARRIORS in that a gang was featured, in this instance consisting of black men, but their opposition in this case were two firemen, with plenty of intrigue and suspense abounding. Mr Hill again traveled through historical territory with GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (1993), which looked at the American Indian chief and his clashes with the government. Another portrait of an American historical figure could be found in WILD BILL (1995), with Jeff Bridges as the iconoclastic Wild Bill Hickok, also spotlighting others such as Calamity Jane, played by Ellen Barkin. The Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 1930s was brought to life by Walter Hill in LAST MAN STANDING (1996), with Bruce Willis as a criminal caught in a war fought between Italian, and Irish Mafia. Into the new millennium, Mr Hill then took a plunge into science fiction with SUPERNOVA (2000), starring James Spader and Angela Bassett. His final movie thus far, THE ASSIGNMENT (2016), covered a man who becomes a woman via reassignment surgery, and plots revenge on the person who put him in this situation. Walter Hill's fifth film, SOUTHERN COMFORT, was one of Walter Hill's most distinctive movies, and also, one of his best-ever films.

A pungent tale of survival in the Louisiana bayous by a group of National Guard soldiers, SOUTHERN COMFORT is a spellbinding viewing experience from start to finish. Walter Hill achieves this in several ways. He dives the spectator into the film without hesitation, introducing the characters who play a role in the narrative in a naturalistic manner. One discovers what they need to know about them, and how their particular mindsets will either assist, or hinder them during the course of the film. The low-key, casual conversations between the characters, the observations they make about what they are caught up in, are all utterly fascinating to witness, and paint a proper canvas for them. They are all three-dimensional characters who could exist in reality, their interactions extremely vivid. This is something the film has in common with other Walter Hill movies such as THE LONG RIDERS and 48 HRS. Other qualities of SOUTHERN COMFORT are also pleasing to mention.

The pacing of the story is also something to behold, with many unexpected surprises occurring that take the viewer unawares. When one thinks matters will go one way, they go in another direction. This only emphasizes how SOUTHERN COMFORT is never predictable. It does not follow the route of other movies which delight in seeing their characters dispatched just for cheap thrills, or visual spectacle. Each and every death in the movie is shocking to witness, but even in this department, the movie is quite spare. SOUTHERN COMFORT cuts away from death scenes early, proving that what is not shown on screen can be even more devastating to the audience. The mind can conjure up worse visions with a minimum of effort, and the film is all the better for this. Walter Hill is to be credited for this, and every area of the film, for making a thoroughly well-executed motion picture which never goes too far, and does hold back when it really counts to its advantage. One of Walter Hill's best films, and an excellent military-themed movie, SOUTHERN COMFORT is a one-of-a-kind viewing experience.

Acting: SOUTHERN COMFORT has a unique cast of actors who bring true life to the film. Keith Carradine, as Spencer, has a charm, sense of serenity, and way about him that works to the movie's benefit. With his floppy blonde hair and easy-going manner, Mr Carradine is a telling contrast to Powers Boothe's Hardin. Powers Boothe, as Hardin, Spencer's best friend, is equally excellent. A performer with a penetrating stare that says so much without having to utter a word, Mr Boothe is the movie's fascinating incarnation of someone whose survival instinct, and sharp intuition, is his raison d'etre in life. The friendship of Spencer and Hardin is the foundation upon which the film rests, and it is a testament to the actors that their chemistry came through with such clarity. The backwards and forwards of their friendship is realistic to watch, and one of the movie's best qualities. Alan Autry, as Bowden, is another great performer. Playing a mentally unbalanced character is never an easy task, but Mr Autry carries this off to perfection, making the viewer empathize with him even during his most testing moments onscreen. His expressive visage makes his emotions evident for the audience to discern without the use of dialogue. Five other actors are worthy of mention for their contributions to SOUTHERN COMFORT.

Fred Ward, as the mean, hard-faced Reece, also gives a great account of himself in SOUTHERN COMFORT. The movie's best villain is utterly watchable at all times, and one does feel sympathy at his fate in the film, despite his previous insidious actions. Les Lannom is also excellent as the grasping Casper, who tries to wrest control over the others, but is not supported in his quest to be leader. Franklyn Seales, as the passionate Simms, delivers a moving performance. His final scenes are some of the most affecting in the movie, and Mr Seales gives it his all. Lewis Smith, as the excitable Stuckey, who initiates the action in the movie, as with Mr Seales, also makes his scenes count, especially his demise, making this surprising twist of events thoroughly horrific to witness. The final acting of note in SOUTHERN COMFORT was by T.K. Carter as Cribbs. Mr Carter's sense of humor, and natural manner, work as a foil to the more serious characters, and his fate is one of the movie's most shocking moments.

Soundtrack: SOUTHERN COMFORT has a lean soundtrack, mainly consisting of Ry Cooder's haunting instrumental score which is played during the film's opening, and closing credits. Parts of the soundtrack are used throughout the movie at irregular intervals, which works well as it heightens suspense without ever being overused. The other main use of music is in the last part of the film during the Cajun town scenes. The music here during the Cajun song and dance sequence is utterly excellent, contrasting the heightened dramatic scenes which juxtapose the merriment. 

Mise-en-scene: As the film is overwhelmingly set in the Louisiana bayous, these are used to formidable effect in the movie. The lakes, endless forests, and large trees all create a sense of loss and doom, as if there is no escape for the characters. This is one of the strongest aspects of SOUTHERN COMFORT, and something no studio could duplicate for its sheer realism. Photography by Andrew Laszlo is clear and precise, without ever making the location pretty which was not the intention with this film, which would have taken away its power, and sense of foreboding horror.

Award-worthy performances in my opinion: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Alan Autry, Fred Ward, Les Lannom, Franklyn Seales, Lewis Smith, T.K. Carter.

Suitability for young viewers: No. Frequent coarse language, adult themes, high-level violence.

Overall Grade: A

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Trailer

Monday, April 19, 2021

THE CAST OF SONG OF THE LOON (1970) - WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

After reviewing SONG OF THE LOON recently on my blog, I was interested to see that, as with the other films I spotlight in 'Where Are They Now?' posts, that the performers of the film either have only a single movie to their credit, or several. Engaging actors who made great contributions to the film, their disappearance from cinema is intriguing, but their accompanying stories would be fascinating to discover.

John Iverson was perfect as Cyrus Wheelwright, the subtle western hero whose passionate, protective side emerged with Ephraim.


Jon Evans also made a definite impression as the seething, spiteful, but beguiling villain Montgomery in the movie.


Brad Fredericks was also striking with his measured portrayal of the forlorn, solemn, needy Calvin.


Monday, April 12, 2021

PAYDAY (1973)

Title: PAYDAY

Year of Release: 1973

Director: Daryl Duke

Genre: Drama

Synopsis: A libertine country music singer's life of women, drink, drugs and excess comes to a head in a most unexpected manner.

Within a film history context: Movies which showcase a country music singer were sometimes featured before PAYDAY, mainly with a musical theme, and in other instances a more dramatic background. One of the first was Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason's Western serial THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935). Starring Gene Autry as a singing cowboy, it was in twelve instalments, and combined music, adventure and science fiction. THE PHANTOM EMPIRE was later made into a feature film released in 1940, again with Mr Autry. In a lighter vein was THE OLD HOMESTEAD (1942), directed by Frank McDonald. A family of country music singers was the focus of this musical comedy movie, with the Vaudevillian Weaver troupe the leads. Many of the films in the period were mainly of this persuasion, being light entertainment vehicles with country music stars and tunes featured, such as NATIONAL BARN DANCE (1944), JAMBOREE (1944), and HOLLYWOOD BARN DANCE (1947). Into the 1950s and beyond, more varied depictions of country music singers began to appear on screens.

Hal Kanter's LOVING YOU (1957) starred Elvis Presley as Deke, a delivery man who becomes a country music singer. More intricate than the films of the 1940s in its complicated, well-drawn characters, such as the scheming Glenda, Deke's manager, it was a change from the home-spun films of the 1940s and before with their simpler plots. COUNTRY MUSIC HOLIDAY (1958), directed by Alvin Ganzer, was closer to the 1940s films in its execution, detailing the life of a country music singer with many tunes and some romance thrown in. The biography of country music star Hank Williams was the focus of Gene Nelson's YOUR CHEATIN' HEART (1964). Paying attention to both Mr Williams' career and personal life, it was a great role for George Hamilton in the lead part. Of a different tone was BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL (1965), directed by Robert Mulligan. In a small Texas town, a man returns home after being in jail, and tries to adjust to life, with strained results. It was notable as the main character performed several country music songs through the course of the movie, but the film itself was of a decidedly dramatic, rather than musical, orientation. 

Jay Sheridan's NASHVILLE REBEL (1966) featured country music singer Waylon Jennings in the main role of a young man just ending his stint in the army, and becoming involved in singing. COUNTRY BOY (1966), directed by Joseph Kane, was about a young man who becomes a country singer, but who is taken advantage of by his unscrupulous talent agent. Another take on country music singers was on view in Jean Yarbrough's HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (1967). Two country singers are en route to Nashville with their band, but become involved with spies when their car breakdown occurs at a spooky house. PAYDAY deviated somewhat from the previous films in the genre in terms of its content, and was the most in-depth movie of its type, for many reasons.

An unflinching, honest account of a country music singer and his life, PAYDAY was the most incisive character study of its genre. It is a warts and all version of the 1940s films effectively turned upside down, and inside and out. It was akin to a behind the scenes expose of, in its case, the country music industry, concentrating upon its unsavory side. The film lacked the sentimentality of THE OLD HOMESTEAD and similar entries, but compensated for this with its intense focus upon its flawed protagonist. PAYDAY, in effect, was a more hardened version of LOVING YOU, NASHVILLE REBEL and COUNTRY BOY, which also had country music lead characters. In terms of charting its character's behavior, PAYDAY had more in common with BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL, with its psychologically complex central character, but with darker shades of YOUR CHEATIN' HEART's Hank Williams also present. The best film of its time about a country music singer, and one of the most absorbing character studies ever made, PAYDAY merits recognition in cinematic history.

Overview: Daryl Duke directed five feature films in his career, being more active in television. His second movie, SHADOW OF THE HAWK (1976) was an adventure about a young American Indian man encountering mysticism, co-directed with George McGowan. Mr Duke's third film, THE SILENT PARTNER (1978) was a suspense drama about a bank employee stealing the money before a robbery occurs, with the robber vigorously pursuing him for the booty. Daryl Duke's penultimate movie, HARD FEELINGS (1981) was a romance set in 1963, where a young man meets an African-American girl, and falls in love. His final picture, TAI-PAN (1986) again went back in time, in this instance intrigue in nineteenth century British-ruled Hong Kong. It was a box-office disappointment, and critically derided, despite the presence of Bryan Brown, Joan Chen, and many others. PAYDAY was Daryl Duke's directorial debut, and his finest motion picture.

Mr Duke has crafted a movie that is documentary-like in its portrayal of the life of its lead character, country music singer Maury Dann. It is as if the viewer is witnessing actual events occurring to real-life people, so convincing is Mr Duke's direction of Don Carpenter's screenplay in PAYDAY. In saying this, the picture is never a predictable experience. Daryl Duke explores all the layers of Maury Dann's life and his personality, showing him at both his best, and at his worst. This makes the film all the more authentic as Mr Duke excels in presenting a compelling, three-dimensional protagonist for the spectator. He achieves this in various intriguing ways. 

Over the course of the movie's running time, more and more details about Maury Dann are revealed, which often challenge preconceptions which one might have, and many times exploding these. The viewer becomes more and more enmeshed in Maury's life, and one feels as if they are seeing privileged, private information. The gradual revealing of pieces of Maury's life is naturalistic in its unfolding, witnessing the character in many different situations, with other characters also assisting in building a profile of him. The careful planning evident throughout the entire production is something which propels the film into being utterly trenchant and compelling. While, admittedly, the film has a downbeat tone, it suits the material, in line with Maury's all-out, mixed-up personal and professional lives. One of the best examples of a country music singer from the genre, PAYDAY is a dazzling movie that leaves the viewer both pensive, and enthralled.

Acting: The performances in PAYDAY are one of its best aspects. In the lead role of Maury Dann, Rip Torn is at his height as a country music singer capable of anything. Mr Torn gives his all to the movie as a man who is alternately genial, nasty, greedy, sneaky, vulnerable but always utterly fascinating to watch. His presence dominates PAYDAY, and makes it a must-see movie for his acting. As Mayleen, the first of Maury Dann's groupies, Ahna Capri brings forth a portrait of a needy woman who loves living on the edge, and pays the price for her involvement with Maury Dann. Another of Maury's groupies, Rosamond, is brought to vivid life by Elayne Heilveil. Miss Heilveil stands head to head with Rip Torn, her acting making it one of the best performances by an actress in the 1970s. Rosamond's sheer insecurity at what is taking place with Maury Dann is etched on her face and in her voice, making Rosamond an unforgettable presence. Several other thespians also contribute fine performances in PAYDAY.

Michael C. Gwynne, as Maury's manager Clarence, is another of this film's stable of excellent actors. One can clearly sense Clarence's discomfort at much of what Maury asks him to do in the movie, Mr Gwynne utilizing his facial expressions to say so much without having to utter dialogue. Cliff Emmich,  as Maury Dann's bodyguard and driver Chicago, is also highly effective in PAYDAY, seeming every bit the person who pays a dear price for his loyalty to his employer.  As a counterpoint, Henry O. Arnold adds a youthful touch as the young man who idolizes Maury Dann, seeing him through rose-colored glasses. Mr Arnold makes his wide-eyed character real without ever being silly or juvenile, giving the film an undertone of sadness. The final acting of note is by Clara Dann as Maury's mother. Even though her role is very small, Miss Dunn makes every moment count as the inebriated, money-sucking Mama Dann. She seems to fit in completely in the disheveled house where the character lives, and is convincing in every way.

Soundtrack: PAYDAY has an eclectic soundtrack which is used to maximum effect in the movie. The introduction features diegetic music with Maury performing a song in a country and western bar. It can be contrasted with the ending, the ironic use of the tune 'Keep on the Sunny Side' making perfect sense with what is taking place onscreen. Aside from this instance, there is also the use of non-diegetic country music songs scattered throughout the movie, and incidental music which gives the film a vivid country and western aura. Diegetic music such as tunes playing on the car radio also add a verisimilitude that pervades PAYDAY to its advantage.

Mise-en-scene: Both indoor, and exterior locations are excellently employed in PAYDAY, which draw a powerful sense of mise-en-scene for the viewer. The numerous motel rooms which Maury monopolizes, and carries out his wheeling and dealing, are notable in the film for their blank, colorless appearance. This is in keeping with the character's cold and detached attitude towards his profession, life, and other people. The use of his personal vehicle is similar to the hotel rooms in revealing more about Maury. In these, Maury has sex, speaks on his car phone, and manipulates others, among activities. In addition, the many places which Maury and his entourage visit are also indicative of his footloose, free-form life, which unravels at the film's end.

Award-worthy performances in my opinion: Rip Torn, Ahna Capri, Elayne Heilveil, Michael C. Gwynne, Cliff Emmich, Henry O. Arnold, Clara Dunn.

Suitability for young viewers: No. Infrequent coarse language, female nudity, adult themes, medium-level violence.

Overall Grade: A

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Thursday, April 1, 2021

SONG OF THE LOON (1970)

Title: SONG OF THE LOON

Year of Release: 1970

DirectorAndrew Herbert, Scott Hanson

Genre: Drama, Romance

Synopsis: In the American West of the 1870s, a young gay man, Ephraim MacIver, explores his sexuality, particularly his affair with the older, understanding Cyrus Wheelwright.

Within a film history context: Homosexuality in motion pictures was not a common occurrence before the eventual breakdown of film censorship in the late 1960s. There were, though, examples of subtly-drawn gay characters and themes in films before SONG OF THE LOON. One of the first documented movies in this vein was Sidney Drew's  A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT (1914). In this film, a man and a woman undergo transformations into a gay man and a lesbian via the effect of seeds. It was one of the earliest films to examine gay sexuality in motion pictures, albeit in a comical manner. The love affair of two male musicians was explored in the German film DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (1919), directed by Richard Oswald. Blackmail comes to the fore in this movie, with true love thwarted by a scheming man seeking to make the lovers pay for their forbidden love, with famous German actor Conrad Veidt in the lead as one of the harried musicians. In comparison, another German film, Carl Theodor Dreyer's MICHAEL (1924) spotlighted a gay painter's lover for his male model, and the difficulties their union faced. 

Into the 1930s and 1940s, gay characters were most likely to be presented in a comic vein, unlike the other examples here mentioned, and in supporting roles. Notable divergences from this were found in Pre-Code 1930s American movies such as SUNNY SKIES (1930), directed by Norman Taurog, with a gay romance story, and Raoul Walsh's SAILOR'S LUCK (1933), which also had a gay character. Of the 1940s movies ROPE (1948), featured a murderous gay couple, but in line with the censorship of the period, this was very much inferred with delicacy. Moving into the 1950s, there were several intimations of gay characters slightly more open in nature than those of beforehand, with some that definitely pushed the boundaries.

Possibly the most explicit gay themed film of its era, although a short movie, was Jean Genet's A SONG OF LOVE (1950). Set in a jail with prisoners and a guard among its characters, it concentrated upon sexuality, glimpses of nudity, and fantasy in a manner that was a first for its time. Another French film, the full-length THE TERRIBLE CHILDREN (1950), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, contained a gay character, played by a female actress in a dual role, in a more conventional narrative of heterosexual romance with some homosexual undertones. With Vincente Minnelli's TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956) matters were entirely different. A thoughtful young man is believed to be gay, everyone attempting to change him, but finding sympathy with the wife of his coach. A bowdlerized film version of the stage play, it nonetheless treated its main character with empathy, despite references to homosexuality being discreet. SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959), directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, was much more open about its gay character. Although the character's face is never shown, the impact of his presence in the movie is what propels the narrative, and his death is what drives his cousin, played by Elizabeth Taylor, to mental illness. Seguing into the 1960s, a gradual loosening of the Production Code brought forth franker films with more openly gay protagonists.

In Gregory Ratoff's British movie OSCAR WILDE (1960) the film followed the famous writer's legal trials and travails with his homosexuality, with Robert Morley in the lead role.  Another British picture, A TASTE OF HONEY (1961), directed by Tony Richardson, featured a gay character in this realistic study of a young woman and her family issues. A more devastating view of gay issues and discrimination was presented in Basil Dearden's VICTIM (1961). The taut tale of a married barrister undone by a past gay affair, and involvement with blackmailers, it showcased Dirk Bogarde in one of his finest performances. ADVISE AND CONSENT (1962), directed by Otto Preminger, was similar to VICTIM in the main character's past homosexuality coming back to haunt him, but this time, running for Secretary of State in the United States government. Bryan Forbes' THE L-SHAPED ROOM (1962) had a minor gay character within its structure, in this case a musician. A more in-depth examination of homosexuality was in TAKE IT ALL (1963), directed by, and starring Claude Jutra. In this movie, a man's difficulty in coming to terms with his sexual orientation, and relationship with a black woman, made up the content of this film. Sidney J. Furie's THE LEATHER BOYS (1964) had a gay motorbike rider in its canvas, with a scene in a gay bar also shown. BUS RILEY'S BACK IN TOWN (1965), directed by Harvey Hart, offered a minor character of the gay mortician who wants to offer more than employment to lead protagonist Bus. John Schlesinger's DARLING (1965) had a gay photographer in a small part, common for many films of the era to have a homosexual character in a supporting role. 

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER (1965), directed by Robert Mulligan, was an expose of Hollywood, and starred Robert Redford in a role as a man with a shadowy gay sexual orientation. The controversy surrounding this did not help the film at the box office, where it was not a success. More explicit was Andy Warhol and Chuck Wein's MY HUSTLER (1965). The story of an older hustler pursuing a younger one, it was one of many of Andy Warhol's gay-themed films to reach audiences in the 1960s. Much more subtle in tone was WINTER KEPT UP WARM (1965), directed by David Secter. The friendship between two young university students, and their complex feelings for each other, was tackled by the director in this intricate movie. Jean-Claude Lord's DELIVER US FROM EVIL (1966) also had a storyline rooted in human emotion, with gay desire and bisexuality being the burning topics. In contrast John Huston's REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967), also treated its subject with candor, being an army colonel whose interest in an army private causes him to commit murder. 

A western theme was the basis for LONESOME COWBOYS (1968), directed by Andy Warhol. Featuring five gay cowboys provoking mayhem and sexual exploits, it was another in the director's unconventional works. In marked contrast, a tense mood thoroughly enveloped John Flynn's THE SERGEANT (1968). The story of an army sergeant, and his passion for a private, was studied in much greater detail than in the related REFLECTIONS OF A GOLDEN EYE, and provided Rod Steiger an excellent role as the eponymous sergeant, with John Phillip Law as the object of his obsession. A complex view of homosexuality was captured in TEORAMA (1968), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. An Italian family receives a visitor at their home, who changes their lives, male and female, both sexually and otherwise. A different perspective on sexual relations, it was one of the director's most intimate, challenging works. 

Bryan Forbes' DEADFALL (1968) had a treacherous gay character whose actions influenced much of the goings-on in the movie with his dishonest ways. FLESH (1968), directed by Paul Morrissey, was another of Andy Warhol's movies with gay overtones, this time a male prostitute who services both men, and women among his exploits. Guilt about homosexuality, and its aftermath, was played out in Gordon Douglas' THE DETECTIVE (1968). An incisive portrait of a police detective searching for the killer of a man believed to been gay, it was an excellent showcase for Frank Sinatra in the lead role of the undaunted investigator. MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), directed by John Schlesinger, was similar to FLESH in that its male character works as an escort, but here diverges from that film in the sympathetic treatment of its lead protagonist. He comes into contact with several gay men in the course of his escorting, but this is treated in a more serious fashion than the casual FLESH, where there are no tragic consequences for that character. Luchino Visconti's THE DAMNED (1969) was of a darker nature than the other examples. Homosexual activity in this movie is depicted as being depraved, and its participants likewise, with its Nazi-era setting in Germany. 

FELLINI'S SATYRICON (1969), directed by Federico Fellini, featured a male-male gay couple, and some related entanglements, in this raucous story set in ancient Rome. In a comical style was Bruce Kessler's THE GAY DECEIVERS (1969). Two young men act as gay to avoid being drafted to the Army, but their decision entails difficulties of its own, especially as they attempt to keep their heterosexual lives on the side. An intentionally comical take on the gay theme, it was notable for also having serious undertones. HUNTING SCENES FROM BAVARIA (1969), a German film directed by Peter Fleishmann, was concerned with a man's sexual orientation, and how this causes problems in the Bavarian village in which he resides. In complete contrast, overtly humorous, if broad, was Stanley Donen's THE STAIRCASE (1969). The tale of two older gay men who operate a barber shop, it was not well received critically, despite starring Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as the central duo. SONG OF THE LOON was a new slant on the depiction of gay characters and themes in cinema for a number of reasons.

With SONG OF THE LOON, it was one of the first instances in film history where there was no doubt that gay characters were the overriding focus of the narrative. While in the other movies gay characters often supported the central protagonists, either as a contrast to the heterosexual characters and unions, or for humorous effect, in SONG OF THE LOON they were the end all and be all of the picture. SONG OF THE LOON had elements in common with features such as DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS, MICHAEL, and WINTER KEPT US WARM in terms of its male-male unions. It shared the sympathetic treatment that their characters received in those films, and chronicled the obstacles which they faced in order to be together. The tone, and lives of the characters in SONG OF THE LOON were serious, with no caricatures present such as the farcical couple in THE STAIRCASE. Aside from this, discrimination against gay characters was another theme that SONG OF THE LOON examined within its context. 

While not presented in an exhaustive manner, racism directed toward gay characters was largely in the form of a single character in SONG OF THE LOON, Montgomery, who himself was gay, but deeply closeted. It was a twist on the blackmailing character in DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS who wanted to harm the gay couple, with Montgomery being more mixed up in his sexual orientation than seriously malignant. Montgomery was, in effect, the softer, more photogenic version of the villains in DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS and VICTIM. Montgomery is also of interest for other reasons. In his sexual ambivalence, he is also similar to INSIDE DAISY CLOVER's bisexual character, and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE's army colonel, both grappling with their orientation. Other features of SONG OF THE LOON are deserving of analysis.

There are no heterosexual opponents to the gay characters in SONG OF THE LOON, which is another striking aspect of the movie, or female characters present anywhere. There are no women who are empathetic of gay characters, such as in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, or TEA AND SYMPATHY. Having women characters present would have complicated the series of events, and brought out other angles that could have made SONG OF THE LOON more intricate. In one way not having a distaff side is unrealistic in terms of lacking a broad base of characters to work with, but could be seen in another light. This could be chalked up to the fact that SONG OF THE LOON was, by and large, made to appeal to a predominately gay audience. It was a gay male fantasy come to life, 'free' of the 'restrictions' of having female characters in the story. In addition to this, SONG OF THE LOON was also different from other films in the genre for another reason.

SONG OF THE LOON was rooted in a spiritual, other-worldly view of homosexuality, and the acceptance of this. The main message of the movie was that it was okay to be gay, and that once one comes to terms with this, that they can move on with their lives. It largely lacked the guilt about being gay which infused films such as TEA AND SYMPATHY, ADVISE & CONSENT, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, and THE SERGEANT, where it caused much drama, and, in some cases, tragedy. On the other hand, SONG OF THE LOON did not possess the sleaze which pervaded movies such as LONESOME COWBOYS, FLESH and THE DAMNED. Even though SONG OF THE LOON had the nudity aspect in common with FLESH, it was more in an aspirational vein than this, and the other two examples, by its equating of nudity and sex with the purity and freshness of the great outdoors, and of finding one's true self. In SONG OF THE LOON, the notion that sex and nudity were dirty was not present, and things of which to be ashamed. A notable example of a gay-themed movie, SONG OF THE LOON is a film that should be seen as a curious counterpoint to the other, better known pictures in the genre.

Overview: SONG OF THE LOON was a motion picture which had a troubled production history. The original director, Scott Hanson, was fired from the project as the film was largely completed, and replaced by Andrew Herbert. Mr Hanson had made a short film released in 1969, THE CLOSET, and this was the overriding reason for his participation in SONG OF THE LOON. Andrew Herbert had a number of movies to his credit as editor, and later in other capacities such as sound. Mr Herbert was credited as director in the theatrical print, but for the purpose of this review, will be looking at the film by giving acknowledgement to both directors for their work on it. 

The directors have styled a movie that is thoughtful, with quite a few positive traits. Upon seeing the film poster, one would expect that SONG OF THE LOON is a controversial, nihilistic work with very few redeeming qualities. The filmmakers' claims about the novel, based upon a book by Richard Amory being both shocking, and erotic in its time, may have been truer in the late 1960s and early 1970s than nowadays. SONG OF THE LOON is, at heart, a meditative work that reflected its times in an allegorical manner, particularly with reference to gay rights and sense of identity in late 1960s/early 1970s United States, although set in the 1870s. The Stonewall Riots were particularly notable in this era, and the movie captures the mood of the times with its narrative. Notions of love, and acceptance, are not only pertinent to gay people but also to humanity at large. The film explores these themes through its characters, and how they handle the hate and fear which is sometimes directed toward them. There is also a leaning toward mysticism in SONG OF THE LOON, and how when mind, body and soul are working together, that life can be better for everyone. While the film has honest intentions, the delivery of some of these could have been better handled.

The use of full male nudity, and eroticism, seems to have various purposes in the movie. On the one hand, there is an inherent rebellion in displaying these, encouraged by the breakdown of censorship, which made such filmic images difficult to exhibit beforehand. The ability to show these images, and scenes, was something of a watershed in this era for cinema. Aside from this, there is also the implication that nudity equals freedom, which the film highlights on many an occasion in its copious outdoor location sequences. Freedom to express oneself, and their desires, is something that SONG OF THE LOON does through its objectification of the male form, and the main sequence of male-male coupling. This movement, though, does create problems of its own. SONG OF THE LOON does veer into exploitation territory with its sex and nudity, especially when it has no reason to exist, such as the fantasy scene with a naked Montgomery pointing a gun at Ephraim. These sequences do take away a little of the film's contemplative mood, and stand out for the wrong reasons. It also points to the fact that the nudity and sex were obviously included for the purposes of notoriety, to draw people into the theatre to see illicit images and scenes, thus ensuring a high profile, and hopefully, high box office takings. There are, though, other flaws in SONG OF THE LOON which do not assist its cause, specifically in its storytelling.

While the highlighting of the Cyrus/Ephraim pairing is the film's main storyline, there is not much of a backstory for Cyrus. It would have been interesting to have found out more about him as he was the movie's most intriguing character. Additionally, the Montgomery/Calvin duo does not receive as much airtime as Cyrus and Ephraim, and just appear sporadically through the course of the film. Montgomery is supposed to be an arch-villain, but we hardly see any of him. Scenes between Ephraim and Montgomery would have helped in informing viewers about their past relationship, but these never appear in a clear form. The relationship between Montgomery and Calvin catches fire at the end of the movie with Calvin's admission of love, but there was no real build up beforehand, despite this scene being well-handled. Omissions such as these emphasize that the film needed further work to make it more credible, but possibly this was due to production turmoil making its presence felt through the film. A movie with good intentions but scattered delivery, SONG OF THE LOON is notable for presenting gay characters and situations in its oddly affecting way.

Acting: THE SONG OF THE LOON has a beguiling cast of actors who in the main contribute convincing performances. As Cyrus Wheelwright, John Iverson is perfect as the charming, patient man who shows the tentative Ephraim MacIver the meaning of love. Mr Iverson seems at home in the western setting, a subtle Western hero, his gentle humor and sensibility working in conjunction with a passionate side that gives the film a thoughtful aura. Morgan Royce, as the film's main character Ephraim MacIver, does not do as well. While Mr Royce attempts to make the character credible, unfortunately, it never comes off as being persuasive, and this is one of the film's lesser aspects. Two other performers, though, do great jobs with their roles in the film.

Jon Evans, as the mean-spirited Montgomery, does excellent work with his malevolent character. While Montgomery is all bluster and curtness, Mr Evans makes one think there is much more to him that meets the eye with his sharp line readings. The last acting of note was by Brad Fredericks as Calvin, Montgomery's partner in crime. As with Jon Evans and several other members of the cast, Mr Fredericks does not enjoy sufficient coverage, but Calvin's proclamation of love toward the closeted Montgomery is believable, and comes from the heart.

Soundtrack: Ken Carlson's instrumental score works beautifully in SONG OF THE LOON, evocative of classic Hollywood scores of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. It enhances the movie's contemplative mood, lending it an ambience of grace.

Mise-en-scene: SONG OF THE LOON has an extensive amount of location filming, and this assists the movie in providing audiences with an authentic viewing experience. The lakes, forests, and other places where the movie was shot in California are handsomely captured in Eastmancolor, something that definitely could not be duplicated inside a studio. The tinting of frames in the love scene between Cyrus and Ephraim is also striking in adding a surreal note to the movie. Other aspects of SONG OF THE LOON are also conspicuous. Costuming is appropriate to the characters, and the western era garments lend the film an extra note of realism, such as Cyrus' clothes, and loincloths worn by American Indian characters such as John. 

Award-worthy performances in my opinion: John Iverson, Jon Evans, Brad Fredericks.

Suitability for young viewers: No. Infrequent male nudity, adult themes, low-level violence.


Addendum: SONG OF THE LOON is also of interest not only because of its content, which would have been daring at the time, but also as its cast seem to have disappeared. Whether having heterosexual performers, whom I believe were the majority of actors in the film, play homosexual characters had a detrimental effect on the careers of these actors is highly possible, and unfortunate. The making of this film, and the behind the scenes details, would definitely be something fascinating to discover, as there is a dearth of information about it in existence.

Overall GradeC

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Monday, March 22, 2021

THE CAST OF THE BUS IS COMING (1971) - WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

I recently critiqued the 1971 film THE BUS IS COMING on the blog, and was intrigued by its cast. In particular two cast members who have largely disappeared from view. I sincerely hope that these actors are well, and happy in whatever they are presently doing.

Burl Bullock, as the volatile, electric Michael, was a performer who stood out in the film. An actor of distinctive appearance and personality, he was perfect in his role as the multi-faceted Michael. Unfortunately this appears to have been his only motion picture acting credit, but it would have been wonderful to have seen him in further movies.

In addition to Burl Bullock, Sandra Reed was also great as Miss Nickerson, the vindictive, traitorous nursery school teacher. An engaging actress whose only other film credit was JOHNNY TOUGH (1974), in THE BUS IS COMING she runs through a gamut of emotions as the treacherous Miss Nickerson. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? (1983)

Title: CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?

Year of Release: 1983

Director: Henry Jaglom

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Synopsis: A woman is abandoned by her husband, and finds love with a man she meets at a café. 

Within a film history context: While there have been many films dealing with wives who leave their husbands, or unhappy marriages, movies which focus upon husbands leaving their wives have been much fewer in number. One of the most notable examples was James Whale's SHOW BOAT (1936). In this film, a woman is left by her husband due to his gambling losses, with another woman also abandoned by her husband, and falling into alcoholism. There is, though, a happy ending for the first woman who reconciles with her husband at the story's conclusion. THE MOON AND SIXPENCE (1942), directed by Albert Lewin, had a man leaving his wife at the film's start, becoming a painter, and involved in a complex series of events which lead to his downfall. In utter contrast, an exploitation tone was employed in Ken Kennedy's THE VELVET TRAP (1966). In this movie, a waitress is raped by the cook at the diner where she works, and later marries a man who frequents the diner, only to abandon her the morning after the wedding. A tale of a woman's road to ruin, it is notable for the woman's moral descent, and that the male characters were largely unsavory without any redeeming facets. 

Matters were of an entirely contrary nature in BED AND BOARD (1970), directed by Francois Truffaut. This time around, a married man with a young child embarks on an affair with a woman. His wife discovers his indiscretion, and will not share a bedroom with him, this leading to him moving out of their apartment, and leaving his wife. In a more domestic, realistic vein than the previous entries, it was another of the director's explorations of male-female relationships. Roman Polanski's TESS (1979) charted a young woman's life odyssey, with her husband deserting her upon discovering her past relationship with an insidious man who left her pregnant. Set in the late 1800s, it was an artistic triumph for the director, and a box office success. HEAD ON (1980), directed by Michael Grant, was the tale of a married woman and her lover, and their kinky sexual exploits. Her shenanigans with her lover are discovered by her husband in a most unexpected manner, leaving her as a result. CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? was in its own league in terms of its treatment of the husband leaves wife theme, with original touches not evident in the other movies previously mentioned.

It is very slightly comparable to THE VELVET TRAP with consideration to its irreverent narrative, but diverts greatly with its lighter, comical atmosphere. THE VELVET TRAP is closer to melodrama and tragedy than CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?, which, while having dramatic segments, does not become bogged down in heavy scenes. The abandonment of Zee is depicted in a scene at the beginning of the film, outlining how her marriage has gone awry, and that her husband is leaving her. The viewer follows her as she learns to move on, and meets Eli, who changes her life. While their love affair is humorous and screwy, it lacks the furtiveness of the characters in HEAD ON who play dangerous games which not only have an impact on themselves but also, others. Other aspects of the movie are also noteworthy in hindsight.

In CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? Zee and Eli are only out to become closer to each other, and their blossoming union, warts and all, is what the picture concentrates on. They have more than enough problems and issues to deal with than having extra participants, or third parties, intrude on their relationship. While there is the introduction of a third parties for a small time in the movie, this is only to reaffirm their union to one another, instead of causing more heartache. With its domestic milieu it shares elements with BED AND BOARD in the backwards and forwards style of storytelling which resembles real life. People fight, make up, fight, and make up again which makes for insightful viewing. A film that explores the husband leaving wife theme in an interesting manner, CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? is an entertaining movie with many thoughtful moments.

Overview: Henry Jaglom has directed twenty-one films in his career over forty-five years, and helming an extra segment in a multi-story movie. His movies are character-driven stories that explore various situations in depth, mainly with reference to the characters and their feelings. Mr Jaglom's first film, A SAFE PLACE (1971), was a fantastical film that centered around a young woman, and her vision of the world. Starring Tuesday Weld in the lead role with Jack Nicholson in support, it was a surreal, original viewing experience. Next came TRACKS (1976) with Dennis Hopper. A view of life seen through the eyes of a Vietnam veteran, and his relationship with a young woman, were clearly delineated by the director in this intense, disturbing movie. ALWAYS (1985) followed a married couple's plans to divorce, but a family 4th of July celebration makes them question their decision. With Mr Jaglom both directing and starring in the lead role, it was a revealing, thoughtful movie. Mr Jaglom worked with an all-female cast in EATING (1990) with an ensemble including Frances Bergen, Mary Crosby and many others, in a story about women talking about their lives at a birthday party. DEJA VU (1997) charted the love story between a store proprietress and an Englishman, with a mostly British cast including Vanessa Redgrave, Anna Massey, and Rachel Kempson in her final film role. OVATION (2015) centred around a theatre actress who falls in love with a smooth television star. Mr Jaglom's most recent film, TRAIN TO ZAKOPANE (2017) was an adaptation of his own stage play, dealing with racism and anti-semitism in Europe of the 1920s and beyond. CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? was Henry Jaglom's fourth full-length movie, and a sound example of his character-based narratives.

CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? is a movie that takes its time in making clear to the audience the feelings and emotions of its characters. One gets to know the protagonists on an intimate level, the dialogue and action, and of course, the performers, assisting in this. CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? is not a movie where there are mysteries about the characters and their motives. The suspense level in this arena is very low, and meant to be this way, as it is not that kind of movie. This is a feature of Mr Jaglom's other efforts such as EATING, where people talk about themselves, their lives, what they like, what they dislike, which gives the movie a genial, friendly atmosphere. While the characters in the film admittedly talk a lot, it is never boring, with the viewer gaining valuable information into what makes the people in the movie tick. This, though, is the double-edged sword of CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? On the one hand, the unrestricted nature of the film works well, but it also exposes certain deficiencies that could have improved the final product if present.

In the opening scenes we see that Zee's husband is leaving her, but we are not given much information as to exactly why they drifted apart, and why he elected to separate from her. It would have been helpful to have had some flashbacks possibly showing them in happier times, contrasting with their marital undoing. While small scenes showing Eli's ex-wife and child were good, it is the only time we see them, as with Zee's husband. It is admirable that CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? showcases Zee and Eli greatly, but adding scenes with her husband returning to their apartment to pick up something he forgot, or Eli's wife ringing him at an inopportune moment for him, would have provided further emotional depth to the characters and their plights. What is missing from the film is the material that would have given it a further ring of truth.

An associated issue issue with the movie is that is lacks an aura of tragedy in its proceedings. Zee and Eli are likable together, but there is not a sense of all or nothing to them. Having Zee being tempted by Larry, though, was interesting as it provided a counterpoint to Zee and Eli together all the time, but nothing much came out of this. If the film contained more misery for them, splitting their union again during the course of the narrative, it would have been more emotionally striking. As it is, the picture is more in a jokey vein, without greatly compelling events to make the audience feel more for its characters. Despite these ellipses, CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? should be recognized as a satisfactory movie for director Henry Jaglom, and one of his most appealing motion pictures.

Acting: The acting in CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? is one of its strongest assets. As Zee, the woman whose husband leaves her at the film's start, Karen Black is in one of her best roles. She makes the beleaguered but humorous Zee hers, despite the film sometimes being too talky, and ensures that her character is believable at all times. As Eli, Zee's new love, Michael Emil is a perfect match for Miss Black, their odd couple pairing appearing unlikely on the surface, but their acting making it all work. In the case of Larry, the pigeon-handler, Michael Margotta shows another string in his acting bow. Generally cast in intense roles, here things are of a different nature. In CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? Mr Margotta exhibits a quieter aura as the man whose charm causes relationships to become shaky all of a sudden. Just seeing Mr Margotta bring out the insecurities of another man without doing much, except show off his pet pigeon to the other man's girlfriend is one of the movie's highlights. The final player of note is Frances Fisher as Larry's girlfriend Louise. With very little dialogue spoken during the movie and mainly using her face to express emotion, Miss Fisher's Louise was a subtle surprise in the film, and, likewise with Mr Margotta, it would have been great to have seen more of her in CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?

Soundtrack: CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? has an eclectic soundtrack. The opening credits feature diegetic use of the tune 'Can She Bake A Cherry Pie?' performed by a band in the park as Zee passes by, and continues in a non-diegetic basis until the end of the scene. The song is also used at the end of the movie during the closing credits with Zee and Emil walking on the street. In addition to this, the closing credits also utilize the Jerome Kern song 'The Way You Look Tonight' with home movies of Emil's family playing as the movie concludes. Other uses of music in CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? are also interesting. There are segments of Zee singing at home and in the club, watched by Emil, which reveal information about her character. The concert which Zee and Emil attend, where the New York Philharmonic Orchestra perform 'Scheherazade', is an example of diegetic music which continues into the next scene, and is an allegorical comment on the characters, and their non-traditional romance.

Mise-en-scene: CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? contains a vast amount of outdoor location filming, which gives the movie freshness and realism. Zee and Emil's café chats, walking together in the street, deep in conversation, and Larry's pigeon-handling sequences work well in the New York City streets. Indoor locations such as Zee's apartment, with its assortment of knick knacks and paraphernalia, is evocative of her state of mind, and turbulent personal life.

Award-worthy performances in my opinion: Karen Black, Michael Emil, Michael Margotta, Frances Fisher.

Suitability for young viewers: No. Frequent coarse language, adult themes.

Overall GradeC

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