Thursday, February 16, 2017

M*A*S*H (1970)

OK, here were go. Where it all began. Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H.

Critics are often asked what they would deem the most influential, and by extension important, American film of all time. So go the academic route, and answer Citizen Kane, while others go populist, and say The Godfather. Then, of course, you have the romantic softies, for whom Casablanca can be the only possible response.

All worthy choices, to be sure, but for me, it’s hands down M*A*S*H.  I can only imagine what it must’ve been like, seeing it for the very first time, back in January of 1970. The opening credits feature the now iconic song “Suicide is Painless,” a beautiful if melancholy tune, as we watch helicopters bringing visibly bloodied bodies from the front to the titular tented unit – our setting for the next two hours. An immediate cut to: Corporal Radar O’Reilly, who clairvoyantly responds to orders from his C.O., Lt. Col. Henry Blake, before he even gives them. Their dialogue is a smash-up of words, comprehensible, yes, but a jolt to the cinematically-attuned ears of the era, when delivery of lines was a neat and tidy process. These guys talk like real people – and nobody had ever, in American film, heard that before. It was nothing less than a sea change for the medium, its reverberations still felt, to this day, nearly fifty years later.

As we establish time and place – a M*A*S*H during the Korea War, although it’s not exactly spelled out for us – a first-time viewer would witness yet more groundbreaking sights. Our protagonist, Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), steals a jeep to get to his unit, and proceeds to swill martinis while ogling the nurses and make some snarky remarks about his tentmate’s religious zealotry. He talks coolly, calmly, yet hardly with the disposition of a United States solider, or at least the kind we’d heretofore seen in the movies.

And as Altman pans and zooms, using a verite style that must’ve looked amateurish by Hollywood standards, he takes us into the operating room. There, surgeons and nurses operate, with in blood-soaked, graphic detail (for 1970), all the while cracking blue jokes and off-handed comments. Clearly an obscene job, and the underlying message is that perhaps they need to be obscene to perform it, and maintain their sanity. Again, a daring conceit for its time; certainly John Wayne would not approve.

And through it all, Altman keeps up a sharply arch sensibility – he knows it’s a comedy, and it is just that. PA announcements mentioning medical terms are painfully mispronounced, a well-endowed dentist becomes the talk of the camp, Hawk and Trapper swill scotch and martinis during their spare few minutes of free time…. And if these hijacks are often scatological, and not politically correct by today’s standards, so be it. People weren’t always politically correct back then. Especially in the army. Especially during a war.

So I can only imagine what Fox execs must’ve thought of this dingy, irreverent lampoon. (Altman reveals in his commentary that he “flew under the radar” as there were two other, bigger war films going on at the Fox backlot.) They either wrote it off as an “experimental,” minor film, the way Columbia dismissed Dr. Strangelove while it was in production, or they were shocked and appalled by what they saw, hoping it would die a quick, painless death. Even stars Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould wanted to get Altman fired, mistaking his unorthodox style for amateurism.

But in the end, Altman got the last laugh, as M*A*S*H raked in 81 million at the BO (back then, that was a blockbuster), and scored a few Oscar noms, including Best Picture. A Vietnam-War-weary public needed some social relevance to go along with their war comedy, and they got it. M*A*S*H is graphically bloody, and simultaneously hilarious. The laughs are real though, gleaned from real human the real human stress of life saving, and you pay for them. (This was Altman’s beef with the TV series, an opinion that I respectfully disagree with; the show after time dealt head-on with the horrors of war, while maintaining the anarchy of the movie.)

Befitting a film, and director, of this nature, M*A*S*H is episodic. (Likely one reason why the premise did so well as a TV series.) Once all the characters are established, the following storylines occur:

·   A dentist (the aforementioned well-endowed one) considers suicide after failing to perform sexually with a nurse. Hawk and Trapper give him a “funeral” and offer him a “black pill” to do the deed. It’s a ruse, of course, so that they can coax another nurse to bed him and restore his erective faith. The nurse gets discharged from the 4077th, numb from ecstasy.
·   Hawk and Trapper must go to Japan to save the life of a Congressman’s son, injured from a grenade at the hand of a buffoonish colonel. Managing to ruffle the feathers of every regular army type along the way, they get arrested by the MP’s and only get out when they blackmail the colonel with compromising photos.
·   Hawk and Trapper operate on a severely wounded GI, needing A positive blood pronto or he may not make it. Radar comes through by giving his own blood.
·    Korean houseboy Ho-John gets drafted by the Korean army, despite Hawk and Trapper’s efforts to drug him s he can fail the exam.
·   Duke bets that Hot Lips is a natural blonde, and arranges her shower tent to fall so his claim can be proven.
·   The corporal from another M*A*S*H, initially visiting the 4077th to address Hot Lip’s grievances, sets up a football game between the units, with 5,000 at stake. Hawk and Trapper procure a ringer, a drafted pro-football star, unaware that the other side has done so as well. The 4077th wins by four points.

And, at the end of it all, Duke and Hawkeye get their discharges. The PA announcer, acting as a clueless Greek Chorus throughout it all, announces the credits. All for now.

Of course, the reason Hawkeye and Trapper get away with all their nose-thumbing and hedonistic forays is because they’re damned good surgeons, and everyone knows it. That’s why wet-noodle commanding officer Henry Blake can only slap them on the wrists for their respective malfeasances. They didn’t sign up – the army needs them. It’s all summed up in the immortal exchange:

Hot Lips: “I wonder how someone of such a low character ever got to such a high position in the army.”

Father Mulcahy: “He was drafted.”

But the salient theme remains, one very much in vogue since Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: the only way to depict the insanity and irrationalism of war is through insanity and irrationalism itself. (And M*A*S*H can add one more requirement: vulgarity.) The bloody scenes in the film are indeed bloody but never gratuitous, presented in the typical Altmanesque fashion of just another day on the job. And it looks real too; no stage blood here.

All of this – the blood, the frankness, the language – works perfectly in concert to make M*A*S*H the groundbreaking film that it is. But it would be nothing without the artistic lens that Altman imparts. His camera movements shy away from nothing – they gravitate towards the incidentals of the human experience. If “every cut is a lie,” as Truffaut opined, then Altman is possibly the most honest director out there. And that style – the overlapping dialogue, the voice-overs, the montages – is never confusing, only revealing, and it might seem to the untrained eye to be easy to do. (It’s not; just watch any John Cassavettes movie and you’ll see what I mean.)

M*A*S*H is Altman’s first masterwork (he had three, for my money), and as such this is the de facto beginning of the New Hollywood movement, or at least it was the era’s ground zero. Nothing would be the same again, and the Altman style exhibited here would spur on and help influence the signature directors of the 70s with their own styles. All of them – Scorcese, Spielberg, Lucas – were influenced to some degree by Altman; even Coppola , director of The Godfather, owes his sense of cinematic realism to the man.

After M*A*S*H, films felt more real, more authentic, and if they didn’t, you felt cheated for the fakery. Film critic Owen Glieberman said this about Altman – that he spoiled him. That every other film felt phony. A lie, a cheat. That’s not how people talk, that’s not what people do. Owen, I know exactly how you feel.

It all started here.

My rating system has a four-star limit, so my rating, regretfully, is only:

Rating:  ****

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hello Dolly (1969)

By 1969, the American movie musical was on life support, but Fox saw promise in adapting the 1964 Broadway hit Hello Dolly to the big screen, and was willing to shell out 25 million to do so. Things got off to a shaky start when the producers filled the titular role with 26-year-old Barbra Streisand, whom many felt too young a choice for the decidedly matronly-meddler Dolly Levi. And things only got shakier when Streisand clashed with nearly everyone on the set, particularly co-star Walter Matthau and director Gene Kelly. In the end, it lost a bundle – around 10 million, according to some estimates – and if it didn’t officially end the screen musical it certainly didn’t help its future prospects much either.

But time has been kind to this lavishly mounted epic, and it even experienced a resurgence of sorts through its inclusion in the 2008 Pixar film Wall-E. And truth be told, it’s a delightful entertainment – a fun, frilly throwback, reminding us all of the Golden Age that existed in Hollywood in much the same way that film itself celebrated the halcyon era of the Gay Nineties, before the twentieth century came crashing down, warts, world wars and all

And, as you may suspect, I’ve a story to go along with this review (I see you rolling your eyes). When I was a teenager, my good friend and mentor, Walter Webster, who had directed me in a few musicals at the local theater, Cumberland Players and my high school, Sacred Heart, called me up. He announced his conundrum – he was directing Hello Dolly at another high school and was hit with the news that one of his actors, in the principal role of Cornelius Hackl, had suddenly taken ill and could not fulfill his thespianic requirements. It was followed with a request: could I assume the part? Ridiculous! With one week before opening night? On top of my other academic duties and extracurriculars? In a whole different school where I knew nobody?

“Tell me what to do and I’ll be there,” was my response. That was what you said when Walt asked you for a favor. You didn’t say no.

It was stressful, hard work; I’m not gonna lie. But it was rewarding, too, and introduced me to a show I had heretofore known only for its title song, which I hasd never been the biggest fan of. But as I learned the lyrics and recited the crackling dialogue, I realized how much fun the damned thing was. Its story – adapted from Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker – is not the heaviest matter in the world, but it has no intentions of being so. And Dolly the movie retains that infectious frivolity gorgeously. By the time it’s over , you’re giddy with effervescence, brought down only and the end when you realize no movie like that could ever be made in these cynical times. But, oh, while it lasts.

Dolly Levi is New York’s most famous matchmaker, and in the repressed, late-Victorian world of 1890, her services are in uber-high demand. She’s on her way to Yonkers to see if she can make herself a match with wealthy feed-store owner Horace Vandergelder, undeterred by his apparent betrothal to a beautiful NY millenarian Irene Maloy. And while she’s going to be in the Big Apple to stymie the union, why not help Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengarde, hook up with her beau by inviting them along? (A romance Vandergelder absolutely forbids.) And hey, how about Vandergelder’s employee, Cornelius, who wants to have at least one adventure outside his humdrum life of feed and grain. And his friend Barnaby can come too. All aboard the railroads to NY, as the cast belts “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” the show’s best number.

Dolly’s plan works – overall. By having Cornelius call on Irene she successfully ends any possibility of her courtship with Horace, but now Irene thinks Cornelius is rich, and their date at the posh Harmonia Gardens puts the gawky grainer in a nervous tizzy along with Barnaby, who’s double-dating with Irene’s pal, Minnie. Dolly sets Horace up for a backup date at the same restaurant, with an insufferable woman she knows will sabotage everything, clearing the path for Dolly’s forward march. And then there’s still Ermengarde – and wouldn’t you know? – everyone’s at the same restaurant. A comedy of errors ensues, and Louie Armstrong, culminating in true love for all interested parties, and a wedding for the most interested of all: Dolly. Look at the old girl, now, fellas!

I’ve often said that a musical rests upon its music; every truly great musical also had great music. And while perhaps Dolly itself is not great, its music is, from the disarmingly anti-feminist “It Takes a Woman” to the truly lovely “Ribbons Down My Back” to the first-act showstopper “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” Smartly, almost all of the original Jerry Herman song score was retained from its Broadway version, and the one replacement, “I Put My Hand In There” for the more Streisand-y “Just Leave Everything To Me,” was wise. And while we’re on the topic, I prefer Streisand’s Dolly to that of Carol Channing (the Broadway performer). Channing’s voice is great for comedy, but a nightmare on the ears, and I’d rather be hearing a melodious voice for two-and-a-half hours than a frog doing a one-joke routine. Sorry, Carol; gotta be honest.

If I have one qualm perhaps it’s Gene Kelly’s direction of certain numbers, turning them into endless dance extravaganzas. Yes, I know, the critique is about as fair as criticizing John Ford for too many shots of Western sunsets, or Hitchcock for overuse of suspense. But really, a number like “Dancing,” although appropriate, just goes on too damned long with twirling skirts and high kicks and the like. (Apparently the choreographer and costume designer did not get along, and no wonder – it must have been a nightmare doing those moves with hoopskirts.) But, alas, it was still the 1800s, and swing dancing and the Charleston were still decades away.

Still, minor stuff. I just love all the visible work that went into this – you can see the labor behind al the costumes and sets and craning camera moves. No digital effects, no offline editing, no screenwriting by committee. Just real, earnest filmmaking. God, I love this era.

Anyway, back to the present. A great film, and not because of Wall-E.

Rating:  ****

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Charlie’s Angels 2:6 “Angel in Love”

Airdate: 10/26/77

Frank Slater, who had evidently double-crossed a partner in crime, is murdered as payback. His aunt, Hildy, hires the Angels to get some answers; they promptly go undercover at her place of business, an adult “spa” named Utopia West, specializing in fun, relaxation and human potential, if you know what I mean. With Kris as yoga instructor and Kelly as driver the Angels are all ready to… get attacked? That’s what a lecherous thug named Lon has on his mind; only Sabrina gets the better part of the deal when she, as a reporter, seems to be falling in love with one of the guests, Doug O’Neal, prodded along by one of the spa’s “touch” exercises. (Where the hell can I sign up for that?)

The wine gets poured, the fire crackles, the brooks babble and the focus softens – O’Neal’s a horseback-riding, skiing, free spirit, Vietnam veteran but sensitive to no end. Sabrina’s officially head over… wait! Isn’t that O’Neal in a photo with Frank from Vietnam? And why does O’Neil look just like the notorious “B.J. Smith,” who robbed a plane and parachuted into anonymity? Yeah, it looks like O’Neal’s the infamous skyjacker, but not the murderer; that honor hoes to the feckless Lom. Still, Bree has to turn in her would-be lover – the price ya pay for playing by the rules.So-so mystery, once again involving an Angel in a

would-be serious relationship, only to have it shatter when the dude turns out to be a total louse. Here’s an idea: have the guy be innocent for a change, forcing the affected Angel to make a decision: leave the man or the agency. Perhaps that’s what I long for on this show – realistic character development, in which the emotionally-driven constraints of real life could bring the cheesecake chases and gunplay down to earth, at least for a while. This is what separates the good shows from the great shows, although, given Angels’ five-season run, maybe they gave their target audience exactly what they wanted.

In any case, why does Sabrina get all the love
stories? It seems as though she’s now pigeonholed as the “smart” one, with Kris and Kelly getting the sexy jobs (they both sport the spa’s uber-tight T-shirts for the duration). Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but the show does seem to be settling down into rigid formula, a far cry from the way it was this time last season.

No real guest stars to speak of, but the setting feels reminiscent of the resort in ep. 1:6, the plot a retread of at least a few Angel-heartbreak shows. All told, an underlying sense of déjà-vu keeps this in the “average” category, though I did like the oblique reference to D.B. Cooper’s famed skyjacking, something 70s audiences would have gotten immediately.

Client: Hildy Slater

Plot difficulty level: 5

                                 Rating:  **

Charlie’s Angels 2:5 “Circus of Terror”

Airdate: 10/19/77

The Barzak Circus is in trouble! A hapless trapeze artist rendered earthbound by a wire-piercing bullet is only the latest in a series of dastardly acts, and so David Barzak, son of the circus owner, enlists the Angels to get to the bottom of the big top. Sabrina, who immediately takes a liking to David, and vice-versa, takes the cover of a mime clown (under the tutelage of a sinister fencer named Anton Tarloff), Kelly pretends to be a motorcycle stuntwoman and Kris attempts to be a showgirl, but the elder Barzak sees her better in the role of knife-thrower Helmut’s assistant. 

Predictably, accidents will happen: Kelly wipes out when her ramp collapses, Sabrina finds a pretty ornery snake in her bed, and someone tries to burn down Kris and Kelly’s tent. Clearly someone’s trying to put the Barzak circus out of business, and, after the Angels are endangered by the thugs one more time, it’s clear who their employer is: Tarloff, whose niece had been killed in their own circus, leading him to conclude, erroneously, that rival Barzak was behind it.

Not bad, early-season outing makes the most of its
fun setting, with a mystery that rides the balance of challenging but not too difficult to follow or guess the outcome of. A great supporting cast of weirdoes helps, too, including the king of weirdoes – character actor Chares Tyner (you’ve seen him) as Tarloff. 

Also don’t miss little person Patty Maloney, best known to fans of this blog as the corporeal
Twikki, as sideshow star and would-be love-interest for Bosley, and Marvin Kaplan as Zobar, a disembodied head. Kaplan of course is best remembered as Henry, the telephone lineman on Alice; a practical live-in patron, he’s probably that show’s version of Norm from Cheers!

On this episode, we learn from a brief line that Bosley is “not recently” married. Like Sabrina, he is apparently divorced, although the show makes little mention of either situation.

Look fast to see Helmut pour himself a snort of Jägermeister, years before it ever became popular here in America!

No debriefing scene in Charlie’s office; instead the epilogue is the Angels dining with the circus members.

Fun romp in a fresh setting, and we finally get to see Kris’ knife-throwing opeining credit shot in context.

Client: David Barzak

Plot difficulty level: 6  (Bosley’s midshow briefing is as thick as it gets)

                              Rating:  ***

Charlie’s Angels 2:4 “Angel Flight”

Airdate: 10/5/77

Angela, the head of a stewardess training program, keeps finding black roses, the traditional symbol of death, wherever she goes, and so she hires the Angels to get to the bottom (her agency choice partly due to having Sabrina as a college roommate). Possible suspects include at least one jilted boyfriend, one would-be boyfriend, and a weird window-washer named Eddie, but things turn ugly when she receives threatening phone calls, and even witnesses the death of a fellow stewardess at a parking garage. It all starts to make sense when the mysterious caller gives explicit instructions, via tape recorder, to Angela on how to sedate the pilot of an upcoming test flight. Things don’t quite go according to plan when she accidentally shoots the other pilot (who’s also in on the plot), while a second thug gets taken down by the Angels. Their plot, apparently to hijack the plane to Peru and sell it for parts(?). is thwarted, though our sheroes still have to land the plane themselves, which (spoiler alert!) they do. 

Genuinely strange episode starts off confusingly, and by the time things are cleared up it’s ridiculously farfetched. Tons of plot holes and unanswered questions, including: Why doesn’t Angela just tell the Angels what she’s about to do, as she’s not being extorted or evidently brainwashed (or maybe she is; the script isn’t clear). Why do the baddies even need her, as Glover (the caller and in-on-the-scheme pilot) seems to be doing everything himself (and no, I’m not buying the debrief explanation that he can play the victimized pilot as a cover and live free the rest of his life)? And what of the scheme – stealing the plane, not for any kind of smuggled or stolen cargo but for its equipment? Huh? What the hell kind of windfall will that yield? 

It really boils down to the fact that airline stewardesses were quite popular on TV during this era – CBS was about to have a show about that very topic called Flying High – as was airline suspense, thanks to the Airport movies (The Incredible Hulk would air a similarly-plotted episode. “747,” the following Spring). Granted, the Angels, and fellow stewardesses. do look good I their uniforms, but in between all the eye candy we oughta have a credible storyline.

But credible storylines seem to be the main casualty of the show so far this season, and it doesn’t help that, thanks to Airplane!, it’s nearly impossible to watch any 70s show or movie about a civilian trying to land a jet while maintaining a straight face. Alright, I’ll try to find something positive: Fawne Harriman, as Angela, was pretty good, playing the part with quirky insecurity and an empathy-electing helplessness over being caught between a rock and a hard place (although it still fees like contrived situation).

There, one good thing, but overall a pretty stinko entry.

Client: Angela

Plot difficulty level: 6 (but typically info-heavy at the beginning and end) 

Rating:  **

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