Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sounder (dir by Martin Ritt)

The 1972 film Sounder follows the Morgans, a family of black sharecroppers living in 1930s Louisiana.

When we first see Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) and his young son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), they’re hunting.  Accompanying them is their loyal dog, Sounder.  As they hunt, two things become very obvious.  Number one, David Lee is a good father who is doing his best to provide for his family under the most difficult circumstances possible.  Number two, the family is desperately poor.  When Nathan finally gives in to temptation and steals a ham to feed his family, the local Sheriff (James Best) shows up at the farmhouse the next day and arrests him.  Nathan is taken away to prison and one of the deputies even shoots Sounder.

Fortunately, Sounder survives and so do the Morgans.  Under the stern but loving leadership of their mother, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), the Morgan children manage to bring in the season’s crops.  Unfortunately, having to work out in the fields doesn’t leave much time for David Lee to get an education.  When he does go to school, he and the other students listen as a middle-aged, white teacher reads to them from Huckleberry FInn.

After the wounded Sounder finally returns to the Morgan family and recovers from his wounds, David Lee decides that he wants to go to the prison and see his father.  Unfortunately, the sheriff refuses to even tell the family where Nathan has been incarcerated.  None of the white authority figures in town care that the Morgans are struggling or that they’ve managed to bring in the crops themselves.  None of them cares or seems to even understand that David Lee is missing his father.  The sheriff presents himself as being a reasonable man and is never heard to the use the n-word.  Instead, he and every other white person in town refers to David Lee as being “boy,” diminishing everything that he’s done since his father was arrested.

David Lee finally figures out the location of a prison that might (or might not) currently be housing his father.  It’s several miles away.  Accompanied by Sounder, David Lee sets out to make the long journey to the prison.  Along the way, he discovers another school and a far more empathetic teacher named Camille (Janet MacLachlan).  David Lee is forced to make a decision that will effect not only his future but also the future of his family.

Sounder is a heartfelt film.  It’s a film that’s less interested in telling a story with a traditional beginning and end as opposed to just sharing scenes of everyday life.  In this case, it’s the life of family that manages to survive despite it often seeming as if the entire world is arrayed against them.  The film was based on a book that pretty much centered around the dog.  The movie, on the other hand, is more about the family and, despite the fact that the film is still named after him, the dog is pretty much superfluous to the plot.  That said, Sounder still plays an important role because, just as Sounder survives being shot at and remains loyal to the people that he loves, the Morgans survive whatever adversity is tossed at them.  Watching the film, the viewer is very much aware that life is never going to be easy for the Morgans but, at the same time, it’s impossible not take some comfort in the fact that they have each other.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson both give strong performances as the resilient Nathan Lee and Rebecca and the entire film is the type of movie that’ll inspire tears even as it inspires happiness.

At the Oscars, Sounder was nominated for Best Picture, where it provided a gentle contrast to the other nominees, Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and The Godfather.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, making 1972 the first year in which black performers were nominated in both of the lead categories.  (It was also the first year in which more than one black actress was nominated for Best Actress as Tyson ended up competing with Lady Sings The Blues‘s Diana Ross.)  In the end, Tyson lost to Cabaret‘s Liza Minnelli while Winfield lost to The Godfather‘s Marlon Brando.  And, of course, The Godfather also went on to deservedly win the award for Best Picture.

A Movie A Day #177: Murphy’s Law (1986, directed by J. Lee Thompson)

What is Murphy’s Law?

Let’s ask LAPD Detective Jack Murphy.

“Don’t fuck with Jack Murphy.”

Normally, having a law named after you would be pretty cool but it appears that this is just a law that Jack came up with himself.  Having to come up with your own law is kind of like having to come up with your own nickname.  Dude, it’s just lame.  Since Jack Murphy is played Charles Bronson, we can cut him some slack.

Murphy’s Law was one of the many film that, towards the end of his career, Bronson made for Cannon Films.  He played a detective in almost all of them.  Jack Murphy is Dirty Harry without the fashion sense.  He is also an alcoholic who cannot get over his ex-wife (Angel Tompkins) and her decision to become a stripper.  Not only has Murphy managed to piss off his superiors with his bad attitude but the mob is out to get him.  Everyone has forgotten Murphy’s Law.  Everyone is fucking with Jack Murphy.

Jack’s main problem, though, is Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress).  Years ago, Murphy sent Joan to prison for murder but, because it’s California and Jerry Brown appointed all of the judges, Joan gets out after just a few years.  Joan starts to systematically murder everyone that Murphy knows, framing Murphy for the murders.  Murphy’s arrested by his fellow cops, all of whom need a refresher on Murphy’s Law.  Though handcuffed to a young thief (Kathleen Wilhoite), Murphy escapes from jail and set off to remind everyone why you don’t fuck with Jack Murphy.

Murphy’s Law is a typical Cannon Bronson film: low-budget, ludicrously violent, borderline incoherent, so reactionary than it makes the Dirty Harry films look liberal, and, if you’re a fan of Charles Bronson, wildly entertaining.  Bronson was 65 years old when he played Jack Murphy so he cannot be blamed for letting his stunt double do most of the work in this movie.  What’s interesting is that, for once, Bronson is not the one doing most of the killing.  Instead, it is Carrie Snodgress, in the role of Joan Freeman, who gets to murder nearly the entire cast.  There is nothing subtle about Snodgress’s demonic performance, which makes it perfect for a Cannon-era Bronson film.  In fact, Carrie Snodgress gives one of the best villainous performances in the entire Bronson filmography.  There is never any doubt that Snodgress is capable of killing even the mighty Charles Bronson, which makes Murphy’s Law a little more suspenseful than most of the movies that Bronson made in the 80s.

Whatever else can be said about Murphy’s Law, it does feature one of Bronson’s best one liners.  When Joan threatens to send him to Hell, Murphy replies, without missing a beat, “Ladies first.”  Only Bronson could make a line like that sound cool.  That’s Bronson’s Law.

Back to School #8: Halls of Anger (dir by Paul Bogart)

Halls Of Anger

Everybody loves Jeff Bridges.

Last month, the Democratic senator from Montana, John Walsh, announced that he wouldn’t be running for reelection because, much like Lianne Spiderbaby, he had been caught plagiarizing.  (Incidentally, I was one of the many bloggers caught up in Lianne’s web of thievery.  If you have ever read Lianne’s review of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, you were essentially reading my review of Black Sabbath.)  Unfortunately, for the Montana Democratic Party, Walsh had already won the Democratic primary.  So, the Montana Democrats held an emergency meeting to select a new nominee.

Governors, ranchers, former congressmen — nearly every prominent Democrat in Montana announced that he didn’t want the nomination.  It looked like all hope was lost but then a petition appeared online, asking the Democrats to nominate Jeff Bridges for the U.S. Senate!  This petition made national headlines and, in just a few hours, it had received thousands of signatures.  For a few brief days, everyone was truly excited about the prospect of U.S. Sen. Jeff Bridges.  I even signed the petition myself, despite the fact that 1) I don’t live in Montana and 2) I’m not even a Democrat!

(I’m a member of the Personal Choice Party.  PCP in 2016!)

Ultimately, he announced that he had no interesting running and wasn’t even sure if he was registered to vote but, until that happened, why were so many of us excited about Jeff Bridges running for the Senate?

Because, in this time of division and conflict, everybody loves Jeff Bridges!

He’s just an incredibly likable actor.  Even when he’s playing a villain, like in Iron Man, he still comes across like someone you would want to live next door to.  He’s everyone’s perfect hippie uncle, the guy that even people who don’t smoke weed want to get stoned with.  If you ever watch any of his early films — and Bridges has been making movies for nearly 50 years now — you’ll discover that this unique and likable charm is something that Jeff Bridges has always possessed.

It’s certainly present in 1970’s Halls of Anger.  This was Jeff Bridges’s film debut, made at a time when he could still pass for a high school student.  He was 20 when he made this film and I have to say that for those of us who best know him as the Dude, Rooster Cogburn, and whoever he was playing in Crazy Heart, it’s always interesting to see just how handsome Jeff Bridges was when he was young.

Jeff Bridges, hiding his face in Halls of Anger

Jeff Bridges, hiding his face in Halls of Anger

In Halls of Anger, he plays Doug, one of 60 white kids who have been transferred to a majority black inner city high school in an attempt to integrate it.  Of all the new white students, Doug is probably the most confident and the most open-minded.  He’s also the most friendly.  His attempt to join the high school basketball team upsets the other students but — even after getting beaten up — Doug sticks with it.  You knew that he would because, after all, he’s played by Jeff Bridges.

Of course, Doug’s story is just one of the many stories told in Halls of Anger.  Another one of the transfers — a weak-willed and balding racist named Leaky (played by future director Rob Reiner!) — tries to provoke a fight with a black student, hoping that he’ll be sent back to his old school for his own protection.  White Sherry (Patricia Stich) dates a black classmate and is savagely assaulted as a result.  Newly assigned vice principal Quincy Davis (Calvin Lockhart) tries to both keep the peace and teach a group of functionally illiterate students how to read.  Militant J.T. Walsh (James Edwards) wanders the hallways and speaks of revolution…

Rob Reiner in Halls of Anger

Rob Reiner in Halls of Anger

Actually, I’m probably making Halls of Anger sound a lot more interesting than it actually is.  For the most part, it’s pretty much your standard 1970 social problem film, in that it’s full of good intentions but those good intentions don’t always add up to compelling drama.  Paul Bogart’s direction is often flat (the scene where Davis teaches his students how to read seems to drag on for hours) and the characters don’t so much talk to each other as they make narratively convenient speeches.

That said, Halls of Anger is worth watching just to see Calvin Lockhart’s authoritative performance, Rob Reiner’s hilariously bad performance, and Jeff Bridges’s charismatic debut performance.  He may never be a member of the U.S. Senate but everybody will always love Jeff Bridges.

You can watch Halls of Anger below!