Rockin’ in the Film World #17: Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS (United Artists 1971)


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Frank Zappa is definitely an acquired taste, one I acquired as a young kid listening to albums like “Absolutely Free”, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”,  and “Apostrophe”, which goes a long way in helping to explain my warped world view. Zappa’s avant garde rock’n’roll, a mélange of jazz, classical, doo-wop, psychedelica, and anything else he could think of, combined with his nonsensical, sexual, and scatological lyrics, skewered convention, the plastic world of suburban America, and hippie culture as well (Zappa was an equal opportunity offender). 200 MOTELS was his first attempt at making a movie, co-directing and co-writing with British documentarian Tony Palmer, and to call it bizarre would be a gross understatement.

Visually, the film is as close to Zappa’s avant garde compositions as you can get. 200 MOTELS was shot on videotape and transferred to 35mm film, using techniques like double and triple exposure, color filters, flash-cut editing, and…

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A Movie A Day #234: The Final Days (1989, directed by Richard Pearce)


Since yesterday’s entry in movie a day featured Philip Baker Hall playing Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, I decided to use today’s entry to talk about a movie that featured Lane Smith in the same role.

Based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s follow-up to All The President’s Men, The Final Days is about the final months of the Nixon presidency.  The movie begins shortly after the resignations of Nixon aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman and follows Nixon (Lane Smith) as he grows increasingly more isolated and reclusive in the White House.  All the familiar moments are here, Nixon ranting against the Kennedys and the establishment, Kennedy talking about his difficult childhood, and, most famously, Nixon asking Henry Kissinger (Theodore Bikel) to pray with him on the night before his resignation.  The Final Days also focuses on the ambitious men who surrounded Nixon during his downfall and who helped to engineer his eventual resignation, especially Al Haig (David Ogden Stiers).

A lot of very good actors have played Richard Nixon.  Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella both received Oscar nominations for playing him and Philip Baker Hall probably should have.  Rip Torn, John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Dan Hedaya, and Bob Gunton have all taken a shot at the role.  But, in my opinion, no one has done a better job as the 37th president than Lane Smith, who bore about as close a resemblance to Nixon as anyone could without a prosthetic nose.  Even more than Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Lane Smith captured not only Nixon’s insecurity and paranoia but also his provides hints of the great leader that Nixon could have been if not for his own self-destructiveness.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (dir by Norman Jewison)


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Earlier tonight, I watched a 1966 film called The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.  

It’s a cheerful comedy about what happens when the captain (played by Theodore Bikel) of a Russian submarine decides that he wants to take a look at the United States.  Though he was only planning to look at America through a periscope, he accidentally runs the submarine into a sandbar sitting near Gloucester Island, which itself sits off the coast of Massachusetts.  The captain sends a nine man landing party, led by Lt. Yuri Rozanov (a youngish Alan Arkin, making his film debut and receiving an Oscar nomination for his efforts), to the island.  Their orders are simple.  Yuri and his men are too either borrow or steal a boat that can be used to push the submarine off the sandbar.  If they run into any locals, they are to claim to be Norwegian fisherman.

Needless to say, things that don’t quite go as planned.  The first Americans that Yuri and his men meet are the family of Walt Whitaker (Carl Reiner), a vacationing playwright.  Walt’s youngest son immediately identifies the Norwegian fisherman as being “Russians with submachine guns.”  When Walt laughingly asks Yuri if he’s a “Russian with a submachine gun,” Yuri produces a submachine gun and promptly takes Walt, his wife (Eva Marie Saint), and his children hostage.

Yuri may be a Russian.  He may officially be an enemy of America.  But he’s actually a pretty nice guy.  All he wants to do is find a boat, keep his men safe, and leave the island with as little drama as possible.  However, the inhabitants of the island have other plans.  As rumors spread that the Russians have landed, the eccentric and largely elderly population of Gloucester Island prepares for war.  Even as Police Chief Mattocks (Brian Keith) and his bumbling assistant, Norman Jonas (Jonathan Winters), attempt to keep everyone calm, Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford) is organizing a militia and trying to contact the U.S. Air Force.

Meanwhile, Walt’s babysitter, Allison (Andrea Dromm) finds herself falling in love with one of the Russians, the gentle Alexei Kolchin (John Phillip Law).

As I said at the start of this review, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a cheerful comedy, one with a rather gentle political subtext, suggesting that the majority of international conflicts could be avoided if people got to know each other as people as opposed to judging them based on nationality or ideology.  There’s a rather old-fashioned liberalism to it that probably seemed quite daring in 1966 but which feels rather quaint today.  Sometimes, the comedy gets a bit broad and there were a few times that I found myself surprised that the film didn’t come with a laugh track.  But overall, this is a well-acted and likable little movie.

As I watched The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (and, as someone who is contractually obligated to use a certain number of words per review, allow me to say how much I enjoyed the length of that title), I found myself considering that the film would have seemed dated in 2013 but, with all the talk of Russian hacking in the election and everything else, it now feels a little bit more relevant.  Not a day goes by when I don’t see someone on twitter announcing that the Russians are coming.  Of course, if the film were released today, its optimistic ending would probably be denounced as an unacceptable compromise.  Peaceful co-existence is no longer as trendy as it once was.

Another interesting thing to note about The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming: though the film was written by William Rose (who also wrote another example of mild 1960s feelgood liberalism, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), it was based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley.  Benchley was the father of Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws.  It’s easy to see the eccentrics of Gloucester Island as distant cousins of the inhabitants of Amity Island.

As previously stated, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was nominated for best picture but it lost to the far more weighty A Man For All Seasons.

Horror on the Lens: I Bury The Living (dir by Albert Band)


Today’s Horror on the Lens comes to use from 1958.  It’s entitled I Bury The Living and say whatever you want about the actual film, that’s a great title.

In I Bury The Living, Richard Boone plays Robert Kraft, the newly appointed chairman of a committee that oversees the local cemetery.  Through a series of unlikely events, Kraft becomes convinced that, through the use of black and white push-pins, he can control who will live and who will die.

Does Robert really have God-like powers or is something else happening?

Watch below to find out!  I Bury The Living is no Dellamorte Dellamore but it’s still an enjoyably over the top piece of cemetery mayhem.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #23: The Defiant Ones (dir by Stanley Kramer)


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Stanley Kramer is one of those old school filmmakers who directed several films that were acclaimed when they were originally released but who tends to be dismissed by contemporary film critics.  Kramer specialized in making films about social issues and he deserves to be applauded for attempting to look at issues that Hollywood, at that time, would have preferred to ignore.  However, as Mark Harris points out in his excellent book Pictures At A Revolution, Kramer started out as a producer and, even after he started directing, he never lost his producer sensibility.  As a result, a Kramer film would typically address issues that were guaranteed to generate a lot of free publicity but, at the same time, Kramer would never run the risk of truly alienating his audience by digging too deeply into those issues.  As a result, Kramer’s films have come to represent a very safe and middlebrow version of 50s and early 60s style liberalism.

Now, I have previously reviewed 4 Stanley Kramer films on this site and I have to admit that I was somewhat dismissive of most of them.  I felt that Ship of Fools was shallow.  I thought that Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner collapsed under the combined weight of a self-satisfied script and Kramer’s refusal to let Sidney Poitier’s character be anything other than idealized perfection.  R.P.M. is a guilty pleasure, specifically because Kramer was so out-of-touch with the film’s subject matter.  I did give Judgment at Nuremberg a good review, describing it as one of Kramer’s rare films that still holds up today.

And now, I’m going to give another Kramer film a good review.

Kramer’s 1958 film The Defiant Ones features a classic Kramer situation.  White Joker (Tony Curtis) and black Noah (Sidney Poitier) are both prisoners in the deep south.  Joker is an unrepentant and violent racist while Noah … well, Noah is Sidney Poitier.  He’s determined, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, and most of all, he’s dignified.  That’s not meant to be a complaint about Poitier’s performance in The Defiant Ones.  In the role of Noah, Poitier has a great screen presence and it’s impossible not to root for him.  Whereas Curtis tends to chew up every piece of scenery that he gets nears (and, again, that’s not really a complaint because Curtis’s overacting is totally appropriate for his character), Poitier keeps the film grounded.

When the prison bus that is transporting them crashes, Joker and Noah are able to escape.  Fleeing on foot, they make their way through the wilderness and attempt to hide from the police.  As quickly becomes obvious, Joker and Noah hate each other but, because the sheriff had a sense of humor, they have also been chained together.  In other words, they’re stuck with each other and, in order to survive, they’re going to have to learn to coexist.

No, it’s not exactly subtle but it works.

As a filmmaker, Kramer was never known for being visually inventive and, as a result, his films often had to resort to heavy-handed monologues to make their point.  But, in The Defiant Ones, the chains act as a great visual symbol for race relations in America.  Joker and Noah literally can’t escape from each other and they have to work together if they’re going to survive.  The chains make that obvious and, as a result, this is the rare Kramer film where nobody has to give a big speech to get across Kramer’s message.  As a result, The Defiant Ones preaches without ever getting preachy.

Though the film is dominated by Poitier and Curtis, it also features some excellent supporting work.  Lon Chaney, Jr, for instance, has a great cameo as world-weary man who helps the two convicts in their flight.  Cara Williams is surprisingly poignant as a lonely, unnamed woman who tries to both protect Joker and get rid of Noah.  And finally, there’s Theodore Bikel, playing the role of Sheriff Max Muller.  Max is the most surprising character in the film, the head of a posse that’s set out to recapture Noah and Joker.  As opposed to most of his men, Max is a humane and caring man who struggles to control the more bloodthirsty men who are serving under him.

Message films tend to get dated rather quickly but The Defiant Ones holds up surprisingly well.