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. Some 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:  **

Charlie’s Angels 2:3 “Pretty Angels All in a Row”

Airdate: 9/28/77 

A mysterious intruder plants a tarantula in the hotel room of one of the “Miss Chrysanthemum” beauty pageant contestants, who reacts with a scream that could wake the dead. The Iowan pageant’s organizer, Ben Prawl, is now losing spooked girls right and left, so he enlists Charlie’s services, with Kris and Kelly losing a coin toss to go undercover as contestants (gee, what are the chances?), while Sabrina and Bosley use documentary filmmakers as their cover.

It’s not long before we meet the ostensible culprits: a couple of sinister Southern boys, who proceed to use Kris for target practice, drop a 40-lb. sandbag during a dance rehearsal, accost and kidnap one of the judges, and bribe and blackmail the replacement judge. The thugs turn out to be working for a Texas tycoon, whose daughter absolutely has to win the pageant at all costs (mainly so she can be used as the company’s sexy spokesperson), All seems to go according to plan until the thugs, relieved of their dastardly duties when their boss disapproves of the kidnapping, figures to take their own ransom for the job, and abducts Sabrina for some extra loot on the side. But thanks to a clever code phrase (“Beau Geste”), the Angels thwart the plot, albeit more than a bit disappointed for not even making the finals!

Less plot, more T&A seems to be the order of the season thus far, and certainly for this episode, where you see more skin than you did in any handful of last year’s shows. Certainly not complaining, mind you, but I’m struck by the fact that this season you have no real mysteries; in “Pretty Angels,” you know who the dastardly evil-doers are by the second reel, and all that’s left to be revealed is their motive. Once that’s found out by the 2/3rd mark, we sort of get a tack-on subplot, the sole purpose of which is to set up a physical encounter during which they can be apprehended. Agatha Christie it sure ain’t.

But maybe I’m quibbling. The episode is still engaging, and it is a heck of a lot of fun to see the Angels at a beauty pageant. Cheryl Ladd as Kris gets to show off her magic skills (and they’re definitely not bad), while Jaclyn does a supremely sexy routine in a skintight black leotard. They’re so good that it’s hard to believe they don’t win, let alone place, but it’s all explained in the end: Charlie reveals that their covers were blown before the final decision, effectively disqualifying them from the competition. Whew, all egos remain unbruised!

Red herring alert: Cutthroat competitor Grace Cooley is not the real antagonist (that would be Miss Texas, whose dad is playing foul to ensure her victory). But she’s still a nasty b**ch, and well played by 70’s TV star Bobbie Mitchell (a semi-regular on the early days of M*A*S*H). I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of her, perhaps less of the kidnapping story.

Another character actor alert: Burton Gilliam as one of the thugs, who specializes in playing “Yee-haw” good-ol’ boys. You definitely know him, if for nothing else than as the racist cowboy in Blazing Saddles. And don’t forget extremely prolific TV star of the 50s and 60s Patricia Barry. She plays Millicent, the kidnapped judge, with plenty of spunk and verve.

A lightweight but spicy entry, with fresh-faced Ladd settling nicely in.

Client: Ben Prawl

Plot difficulty level: Around a 4. 

Rating:  ***

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

There’s a moment, about a half hour into Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Sheriff Bledsoe, a sympathetic lawman the titular duo visits to help them escape a posse, tells Butch, “You’re the most affable man I’ve ever known.” And I realized, after seeing the film, that he speaks for the audience too. We like Butch – and Sundance – and therein lies the key to the film’s phenomenal success. Through their adventures, mis and otherwise, the two men converse, trading sarcasms, understatements, overstatements, quips, witticisms, ribbings, etc, etc…. just like real people. By the end, they feel like friends to us, or at least proxies for people like that we’ve met in real life.

Outlaws? Perhaps, but it just so happens to be what they’re good at. One of the great themes f the movie is that for many, crime is just another job, much like any other. And even moreso, they’re better people as outlaws, an irony revealed when the duo goes straight in Bolivia, as payroll guards, and wind up cold-bloodedly murdering a posse of bandits to get the money back. When they go back to being outlaws, we’re happy for them, despite our better nature admonishing us otherwise.

But Bledsoe goes on to tell Butch and Sundance that they’re gonna die, and that the only thing they can do is choose where, and that also makes the film as gripping and powerful as it is. Because creeping underneath our chummy affinity with these guys lies the seething discomfort of knowing that eventually their luck will run out, and so it does. Yet, when it does, Butch and Sundance remain cleverly upbeat, even going out with a one-liner. That’s just how they roll.

But let’s back up. When we’re introduced to the notorious Western outlaw Butch Cassidy, he laments the design of a new bank, with bolstered security, and wonders why. “People kept robbing it,” informs the teller. “That’s a small rice to pay for beauty,” answers Butch, foreshadowing a new era, one that he and his cohort Sundance will find increasingly unfamiliar.

B&S’s crew, the “Hold in the Wall Gang,” are a loose confederation, so much so that they’ve elected a new leader to replace Butch, and one which he promptly decommissions, taking care of that idea. But train robbery seems to be Butch’s new interest these days, in particular the “Flyer,” a locomotive he robs – twice – much to the neurotic discontent of the safe’s guard, Woodcock. But these robberies have the effect of increased notoriety, and pursuit by the law. A dogged lawman named LeFors, with the help of an Indian tracker, are hot on their trail. They decide to take it on the run – to Bolivia – along with Sundance’s girl, Etta, hoping for a better, easier life abroad.

Not such a hot idea. Bolivia is pretty much the armpit of the world, although they d have banks, which B&S waste not time in emptying. But fearing that LeFors is still trailing, they both decide to go on the up and up, taking a job as payroll guards under the employ of a crusty fellow Yank named Percy. But they get robbed, and Percy is murdered; B&S go after the banditos and, self-defensively, wipe then all out. Disillusioned by the straight life, they go back to robbing, but when a boy recognizes the brand from one of their stolen mules, the local law, and later federales, surround them on all sides. The famed duo, realizing their time is up but not admitting it, come out with both guns blazing to meet their maker, and enter immortality.

Not such a cheery ending but then, 1969 audiences were used to it, having made a hit of the similar-themed Bonnie and Clyde some two years earlier. But that movie’s ending was far more graphic (Butch’s freeze-frames and turns to sepia before we see any carnage), and it also had a different message – Bonnie and Clyde enjoyed their killings and violence, spurred by the thrill of bloodlust and the media which celebrated their misdeeds; its trenchant ending made more palatable by the notion that somehow they deserved what was coming to them. Butch and Sundance never killed (as outlaws) until the final scene; their crime was a job they were best fitted for, and they dealt with it, warts and all (including their tragic deaths). Nothing particularly legendary about it, and they’d be the first to admit it. In fact, they’d make a joke about it.

But it wasn’t just its treatment of violence that made Butch so groundbreaking. With writing that cracked, that shined… that came alive as you were listening to it, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid redefined the Hollywood screenplay. William Goldman’s masterful script was perhaps the first not to sound dated, like some relic from a bygone, Gunsmoke era. John Wayne was a towering icon but he never talked like you or I would, and I can’t possibly remember a single scene of his with a snappy, sarcastic retort. One could even make the case (and many critics have) that this isn’t even a Western at all, but a closely-observed, thoughtful male-friendship flick, in which that friendship is al they have in a new word turned topsy-turvy. In this way, it functions as allegory, and commentary on the current era of the late 60s when the era of the white-male domination was also disintegrating, or at least being threatened.

I could continue this analysis forever, but I’ll just move on to clean-up comments. Strother Martin, two years after playing Newman’s greatest nemesis in Cool Hand Like, reverses gears and plays a marvelous, beloved codger, with some fantastic lines at his disposal (“That’s what this does to ya, it makes ya colorful”). Katherine Ross in both doe-eyed and smoldering in her role as Sundance’s squueze, and she manages to get some affection from Butch as well. And the gunplay, although minimal, is well choreographed and engaging, particularly the final standoff. Of course, it helps when conducted by engaging characters; it so rarely is in the movies.

Oh, and how can we forget the classic “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” sung by B.J. Thomas and penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It’s used over the scene of Butch and Etta fooling around on a bicycle, historically significant for its time period of 1898 but also well-used as a symbol, for its days would be numbered too. The rest of the score is okay, too, but some of it perhaps dates the film (particularly that “doo-be-doo-be-doo” interlude after arriving at Bolivia).

In short, a true classic, hands down. And it also happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies.

Rating:  ****

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Fox scored big with this return to “serious” science fiction, two years after their miniaturation adventure Fantastic Voyage. Adapted by Rod Serling from the acclaimed Pierre Boulle novel, Planet of the Apes is a pretty nifty imagining – what if apes were the civilized ones, descended from primitive humans? Of course, the inversion wouldn’t work without a real human – one of us – to enter the world and buck the social system that dismisses their evolution and harbors discriminatory attitudes towards humans, even if one of them does talk and look like Charlton Heston.

By the time I was a kid, Planet of the Apes had already become a franchise, with several sequels, a TV series for adults ad an animated show for kids, and a great deal of merchandising that included coloring books, lunch kettles and a book-and-record set (I had ‘em all). But really none of the knock-offs, though profitable, could really match the freshness and allegorical potency of the original. Planet, with all its adventure and ape-makeup, is really at its best when it reminds us of the folly of our own prejudge and ignorances of science, history and simple human decency. Lessons perhaps more invaluable now than ever before.

Four American astronauts, the leader of whom is named Taylor (Charton Heston) journey through space on a mission of discovery, but their travel is not simply one of distance but of time – we’re talking thousand of years! When they wake from their hibernation (for them only a couple of months have elapsed), they discover a female crew member had died, and that now they must deal with their crash landing on a strange, unknown planet. Their ship fully submerged in water and lost, they must now make a trek through this strange ew world, one looking suspiciously like earth, with desserts, cliffs, caves and, most importantly, water… meaning life.

But the life they find is not exactly the friendly sort. After finding a group of humans, dressed in skins and apparently unable to talk, they encounter their oppressors: gun-toting, horseback riding anthropomorphic apes. The talking primates waste no time in corralling and imprisoning the humans, even the astronauts. Taylor, evidently the sole survivor of he group, is wounded in the neck, rendering him unable to speak. With vocal abilities gone, he is treated like the rest of the mute humans; only one sensitive ape, a female scientist named Zira, can discern that he is different, and we learn that she is courting a fellow scientist, Cornelius, who is currently studying their possible evolution from these feral humans, largely on the basis of artifacts he had found in the “Forbidden Zone,” an off-limits area for the apes, but the one Taylor crash-landed at.

But Zira and Cornelius are up against the powers that be, in the form of autocratic Dr. Zaius, who blindly follows tradition and religion, doubting Taylor’s apparent intelligence despite his inability to talk. And his insistence on escaping doesn’t help either, but when he is captured and returned, he utters those famous words, “Take your damned paws off me, you filthy ape!” Now the scientists are convinced, but the law isn’t; at Taylor’s hearing he is treated just as inhumanly as before, and now Dr. Zika an Cornelius are being accused of heresy for their defense of him. The five of them escape (including Nova, a beautiful human woman who’d been Taylor’s cage-mate, and Julius, Zika’s young nephew), heading toward the cave housing those artifacts, but Zaius and the others follow them. Taylor, now armed, takes the Dr. hostage to hold the apes off, and tries to cut a deal wit him if they could offer evolutionary proof from the cave. Dolls, false, teeth, pacemakers – none of this proof is sufficient, so Taylor takes off on his own with Nova, into the sunset.

After they leave, however, Zaius explodes the cave, destroying the artifacts, and formally accuses Zika and Cornelius of heresy. Ad Taylor? He finally finds out where he landed when he sees a half-buried Statue of Liberty on the beach. The Planet of the Apes is actually… earth.

With Rod Serling at the writing helm, you’d have to expect a twist ending, right? But what’s surprising is that it’s not really much of a twist at all, if you were paying attention. From the opening, when the Taylor muses on earth’s low likelihood for survival, to the later revelation that there once was a human culture that was just as civilized as the apes, perhaps moreso (I mean, what other planet could it be?), Serling drops some hints along the way, if not giveaways. But the end twist still packs a punch, and hammers home the film’s primary thee just in case we didn’t quite get it before.

As I mentioned with the Fantastic Voyage review, sci-fi was getting pretty heady now, what with 2001, Star Trek and the like. The style of Planet, like Voyage, is pretty hard-boiled – not much levity; a dark, foreboding score, and camerawork full of targeted zooms and suddenly revealing pans (the last being the main element that dates the film). But they were dark times and sci-fi was expected to be cautionary as much as entertaining, and Planet succeeds on that count. I mentioned its continued relevance in this day and age; proof of that is the recent reboot, doing well at the B.O. and evidentially connecting with a frightened populace.

Oh, and BTW, if you’re a Charlton Heston fan, or at least a fan of his physique, this is the movie you want. In addition to being half-clad for most of the film, he’s got a few backside-revealing shots, a first for a Fox movie, at least in this collection. By 1968, standards were relaxed, and the Hayes Code was pretty much abolished (the MPAA would rate its first movie later that year).

And one more thing – boo, hiss to the Fox Collection (even though I love it so far) for using a pan and scan version of this movie. I didn’t even though they were still being made, given that all TV’s now are widescreen. Oh, well; it’s been the only one so far.

Still, a classic. And it absolutely holds up.

Rating:  ****

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