Monday, July 28, 2014

Movie Monday: The Magnificent Ambersons

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From the man that brought you a little film called Citizen Kane...

Usually for Movie Monday, I talk about a film I have not seen before. I like "discovering" it almost as I'm writing these reviews, to gauge what my first, gut reactions are to a particular movie.

I decided to break that rule this week, since not only have I seen this film before, I've seen it many times: as a huge fan of the work of Orson Welles, there's simply no way to ignore this compromised masterpiece.
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As the opening title card says, The Magnificent Ambersons is based on the book by Booth Tarkington, about a prominent Midwestern family and the changes they and society undergo at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

A man named Eugene Morgan (Welles' pal and co-conspirator Joseph Cotten) tries to woo Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but she rejects him and marries Wilbur Minafer, who is from a prominent family, but does not love.
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Isabel and Wilbur have a son, George, who is basically a rotten little shit from birth. As a child, he's a terror, and the whole town roots for him to get his "comeuppance." The film flashes forward twenty years, and George is now grown up (played by Tim Holt), and meets his mother's former paramour, whom he dislikes instantly. In the intervening decades, Eugene has become a car magnate, and is fabulously wealthy. He has a daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), whom George does like, quite a bit.
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George's father dies, and Eugene, a widower, tries to rekindle his relationship with Isabel. George will have none of it, and does everything he can to stand in his way. Isabel senses this, and goes along with her son's wishes, even though it makes her unhappy.

Complicating things even further is Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who also had feelings for Eugene, and is descending into psychosis. Events conspire to bring the Ambersons low financially, and George is forced to take up a dangerous line of work to keep their lifestyle going, while Eugene just gets more and more successful.
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George has difficulty accepting how much the world has changed around him in such a short time: cars are now everywhere, billowing black smoke. During a dinner party, George is rude to Eugene's face telling him that cars are going to ruin society, and Eugene concedes that he may be right.

The film ends on a curious note, with Eugene and Aunt Fanny visiting George after an accident, with the former declaring that he and the young man have made peace at last.
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I understand that not much in my description of the plot makes The Magnificent Ambersons sound very interesting: it's a family drama based on a (then) renowned novel, the kind of stuffy, high-brow stuff that you'd see on PBS or at your nearest "art house" theater. The stuff about the car industry completely changing society is interesting, but nothing that makes you think "I have to see this movie."

What makes The Magnificent Ambersons so compelling is the style director Orson Welles brings to it. This was his first film after Kane, and he was eager to show the world that he could make something more mature, less flashy, but just as powerful. And he completely pulls it off, instead focusing on the characters, and allowing his camera to float smoothly around the sumptuous sets, as if it just another member of the family.

It's not that there aren't great shots/sequences in this film, there are: a long scene during a party was done entirely in one shot, with people moving in and out of the frame, and then back in. The shadows cast in the Ambersons' home loom long and deep, and there's a constant sense of foreboding, as history closes in on this once-prominent family.

One of the other things that makes this film so remarkable is that it is, as I mentioned above, compromised. The original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons ran almost two hours, and just as editing began Welles was asked to fly to Latin America to make another film as part of the war effort. He had planned to edit Ambersons from there, but wartime flying restrictions kept his editor (the soon-to-be-legendary Robert Wise) from joining him. A disastrous preview caused RKO to panic, and they took the job of editing the film on themselves. They lopped an entire half hour out, and reshot a "happier" ending, removing Welles' original (this being right after Pearl Harbor, the preview audience simply wasn't interested in anything challenging or even a little bit downbeat), as well as cutting other shots and the music, a move that so infuriated composer Bernard Herrmann he had his name removed from the final film.

Normally, a movie having its ending removed and replaced with a Smile Button would be fatal, tilting the film's axis to the point where it effectively makes it a bad movie. But the stuff that Welles did up until that last five minutes is so good, the acting so top-notch, the visuals so arresting, that it's strangely easy to just shrug off the tacked-on ending, and luxuriate in the rest.

The Magnificent Ambersons is loaded with Kane veterans: Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Erskine Sanford. And even though the subject matter of both films couldn't be more different, this feels like the second installment of what could have been an amazing series of films by Welles' Mercury Theatre repertoire company (Welles even throws in a gag, when we see a newspaper has a review column by someone named Jed Leland, who was a character in Citizen Kane played by...Joseph Cotten). New to Welles' stock company was Tim Holt, an actor who spent most of his career in B or C westerns, seemingly dabbling in "A" pictures only if they were masterpieces: he did this, My Darling Clementine, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the 1940s, and then went right back to the westerns.

The missing half hour of Ambersons is apparently lost forever, the footage has never surfaced (supposedly RKO burned it to ensure Welles could not get his hands on it, a move so retroactively infuriating it defies belief) despite rumors at least one copy was sent to Welles overseas. The destruction of the original version hurt Welles so deeply that he couldn't bear to watch the film on TV, even decades later.

So while all of this backstage stuff is quite interesting, it shouldn't take away from what we do have: a marvelous film, a worthy follow-up to Citizen Kane (if such a thing is even possible), and an unmistakable statement that, as a director, Orson Welles' genius did not stop at the burning of that sled.



Monday, July 21, 2014

Movie Monday: Looking For Love

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We're all Looking For Love!

I came across this trailer ay work last week, never having heard of the film before. Check out the poster, and you'll see the sole reason I was interested: it features an appearance by Johnny Carson, as himself, on The Tonight Show! What the what?
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Looking for Love stars singing star Connie Francis (whom Hollywood assumed was a movie star) and romantic copy staple Jim Hutton. Francis plays Libby Caruso (heh), who dreams of being a singer, but can't get any traction. She decides to give up her dreams and get a regular job and land a husband. She meets Paul (Hutton) in a supermarket, and is interested in him, but he's not interested back.
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Later, Libby creates a clothing line for women. It starts to take off, and Paul somehow manages to get Libby booked on The Tonight Show(!) to promote it. Libby mentions to Johnny that she can sing, so he has her perform on the show, which finally launches her singing career.


I'll be honest, I didn't care one whit about the main thrust of the film--it's just romantic piffle. I was interested solely for the presence of Johnny, who had just started The Tonight Show two years earlier. You can count on one hand the number of times Carson let him or Tonight be used in any way outside the show itself, so I can only imagine he figured it was a good way to promote Tonight in a big way during its early years. Later on, when talking about this movie, Carson would say "Looking For Love was so bad it was transferred to flammable nitrate stock."
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So, how are the Carson scenes? Well, Johnny was no actor (by his own admission), and he does seem a little uncomfortable during the very contrived moment where he invites Libby to sing on the show. But he's still a charming presence, and (IMO) it's a treat seeing this era of The Tonight Show in color!

Unfortunately, this is the only scene Johnny is in. The trailer made it seem like he was practically a co-star (a movie trailer, misrepresenting what the film is actually about? Stop the presses!), but he's gone from the movie after this.
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Libby's career starts going places, but she's met with a lot of set backs, both on stage and in her love life. During a live performance on The Danny Thomas Show (whose audience looks suspiciously like the one that attended The Tonight Show) everything goes wrong, leaving Libby a sobbing mess which forces Danny to ad-lib, live on air.

Paul starts to change his mind about Libby, right at the time she starts to fall for another guy from the supermarket, played by Joby Baker (who?). The one surprising thing about the movie is that Libby and Paul don't end up together: rather, Paul then moves on to Libby's roommate (played by Susan Oliver, who in real life later went on to become a director and aviator--where's that movie?), and by the end we have two happy couples, plus great character actor Jesse White playing some bells. There are worse ways to end a movie.
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Of course, Looking For Love is completely forgettable: it's basically a big sitcom episode, stretched out to feature length. The sets are nice to look at, and there's a lot of famous faces (in addition to Johnny and Danny Thomas, there's also George Hamilton, Paula Prentiss, and Yvette Mimieux!) that come and go. But I think the only reason anyone remembers it all is because of that all-too-brief glimpse of the ascendent Johnny Carson, live and in color.

 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Movie Monday: Spider-Man

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It's The Amazing--well, just Spider-Man!

A few weeks ago, my friends Chris and Cindy Franklin reviewed this movie-length 1977 Spider-Man TV pilot/movie on their Super Mates Podcast, and for the most part raked it over the coals. I hadn't seen it in years, decades maybe, and I didn't remember it being all that bad. So I felt is was time for a refresher.
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For those who have never seen it (and that's most of you, because Marvel refuses to release this or any of the subsequent episodes on DVD), Spider-Man was commissioned as a TV movie which would serve as a "backdoor pilot" to an ongoing series. The TV movie was a ratings success, and after some post-pilot tinkering (cast changes, mostly) the series launched. For some reason, instead of giving it a regular time slot, CBS used it as a heat-seeking missile, airing episodes in clumps to run against other networks' hit shows, hopefully draining some of their audience away. In an age where you had to actually sit in front of your TV and watch a program lest you miss it forever, this is an insane, maddening strategy, and it couldn't have done Spider-Man any favors.

Anyway, this TV movie tells the story you're all familiar with, but with some major changes: Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) works as a photographer for The Daily Bugle, where he is on the receiving end of blustery abuse from Publisher J. Jonah Jameson (David White). He is also a grad student, and one way while working on some experiments involving radiation, he sees an unwanted visitor:
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Peter gets bit, you know the rest. Except here, there is no Uncle Ben, so our hero's decision to become Spider-Man is mostly done on a whim. Not too long after being bit, he notices he can climb walls, crawling all over the outside of the townhouse he shares with his Aunt May (Jeff--yes, Jeff--Donnell). After stopping a mugging by scaring the bejeezus out of the mugger by scampering up an alleyway wall, he attracts the attention of random passersby and then the Daily Bugle! Jameson wants pictures of this "Spider-Man" of course, so Peter goes home and makes himself a snazzy suit:
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For the most part, Hammond is fine in the part, if bland. He's not given a lot of character stuff to work with, so the blame can't really fall too heavily on him. My favorite moment of the whole show comes during this "trying the costume on" scene when, after seeing himself in the mirror, he becomes giddy with the sheer weirdness of the path he's setting himself on:
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The other plot going on involves a bad guy named Byron who in public is a famous self-help guru, but is actually a crook using his abilities to compel his patients--some of them prominent doctors and lawyers--to commit crimes! Eventually, Byron decides to extort all of New York City, threatening to have a number of its citizens kill themselves unless a huge ransom is paid.

As Spider-Man, Peter meets up with some of Bryon's goons, including three samurai types(!), and the effects are...well, okay, they're pretty dodgy. There's some really bad matte shots where Spider-Man isn't even touching anything (thanks to mismatched footage), and lots of the guy in the suit (often as not the stuntman, not Hammond) walking on what's clearly the floor with the camera turned, ala the Batman TV show. Once in a while though they pull off something cool, like when Spidey kicks a bad guy from his position on the wall--hardly anything anyone would even notice today, but in 1977 this was still pretty sophisticated for TV.

Later, Peter visits Byron and gets slapped with one of his mind control bugs. In a great scene--the most tense of the show--Peter walks like a zombie to the top of the Empire State Building, preparing to kill himself by jumping. This scene is shot in an almost hand-held, POV-style, and it's quite effective. Peter here reminds me of some sort of mass murderer who looks totally calm, but is about to go off in some horrific way. Luckily for us, and himself, Peter accidentally crushes Byron's pin on the pointed guard railing, waking him up just in time:
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He dons the Spidey costume, pulls down Byron's equipment that is sending the nefarious signals, which causes the computer to blow up, turning Byron into a partially immobile zombie. Spider-Man cheerfully suggests Byron turn himself into the police, which he does. And with that, Spider-Man is ready for another adventure!


The main flaw that Spider-Man suffers from--and it's the same flaw we saw in 1978's Dr. Strange, and even in 1997's Justice League of America--it's that there's not enough of the stuff you came for: namely, superheroics! The Spider-Man TV movie gives a lot of screen time to Peter, which makes sense since you're trying to establish the character. But then there's Michael Pataki as a police captain, and he's straight out of a thousand other cop shows airing at the time. All the stuff at The Daily Bugle is okay, but after only a minute or two of Spidey action, did there need to be what felt like a dozen scenes there? If I want newspaper drama, I'll watch Lou Grant!

TV networks were still very unsure people would watch a "serious" superhero show, so they tended to lard them up with familiar TV tropes--The Incredible Hulk was just The Fugitive after all, but the talent behind that show made that work for them. With Spider-Man, I half expected to see Starsky & Hutch's red Grand Torino vrooom by at some point.

Still, there is some fun stuff here. There's a point where an under-the-weather Spidey tries to get a lift via an off-duty cab, but can't, so he bums a ride inside a garbage truck. If that's not a scene from a Ditko Spider-Man comic, it sure feels like it. But those moments are few and very far between.

Maybe it's my childhood nostalgia talking--I distinctly remember watching Spider-Man as it aired, and being thrilled that I was just getting to see a live-action Spidey--and I'm just viewing this more warmly than it deserves. But, for all its flaws, I'd say this series definitely deserves a DVD release. I mean, they put out Spider-Man 3, after all...



Monday, July 7, 2014

Movie Monday: City of the Living Dead

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From the bowels of the earth they came...to collect the living!

City of the Living Dead is the first of director and madman Lucio Fulci's unofficial "Gates of Hell" trilogy, which later went on to include The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery. It features dead priests, zombies, ancient curses, plus one guy getting a drill to the head.
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The plot could not be more basic: after a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself, the gates of hell are opened. Zombies start to show up (seriously, Fulci shows us our first zombie at the 4:09 mark), and then all Hell literally starts breaking loose.
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All of this fooferaw is sensed by psychic Mary Woodhouse (Fulci favorite Catriona MacColl), who dies of fright during a seance. She is buried, only to come back live while being buried. In a bravura sequence, absent of gore but full of menace, a newspaper reporter investigating the case hears a weird sound and digs her up:
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The Reporter and and the Psychic (which would have made a great TV series) team-up, and discover that all of this is part of a prophecy spelled out in the Book of Enoch. The only way to stop the dead from taking over the Earth is to head to Dunwich, New England and close the gates of Hell before All Saint's Day, after which it will be too late.

Great premise, right? For some reason, Fulci then deals with several sub-plots featuring other characters, and our main characters take a very relaxed approach to their mission: at one point they even talk about getting a bite to eat and taking in some of the local scenery! Um, excuse, me, aren't you guys on a deadline to, you know, prevent the end of the world?

That aside, some of the fun's most fun (read: gory) moments come from the side characters, like when another member of the undead puts a Lugosi-esque whammy on a young girl, causing her to regurgitate tons of organs right out of her mouth. Her boyfriend watches in horror, only to be rewarded by having his brain ripped out. There's also a sub-plot about a town pervert who gets murdered by an angry father of a young victimized girl. I mean, a really angry father:
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The film ends in a giant crypt where zombies come out of the woodwork and attack our heroes, and it is quite scary and nightmare-inducing, with its claustrophobic framing and feeling of utter dread.
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City of the Living Dead ends on a happy note, as happy as anything ever is in a Fulci film. Then there's a final shot that is fairly baffling and unexplained, I've looked it up on the web and no one seems sure exactly what it means.


Overall, COTLD is a fun, gory time, if that's your sort of thing. I'm not expert on the man's work, but there are other films of his that I've enjoyed more, and didn't have such long drawn out dull parts. The gore is right there on the screen and imaginatively conceived, as it usually is when Fulci's involved. The way other directors liked to scare audiences, or take them to other, far off worlds, Lucio Fulci liked reducing the human body to so much pulp.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Movie Monday: Viva Knievel!

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What better movie to celebrate July 4th with than the all-american Viva Knievel!?

For those of you who don't know (you poor souls, you), Viva Knievel! is the sole movie-starring role for motorcycling stunt hero and Great American Evel Knievel, who parlayed a career of crashing into things to fame and fortune. As is typical with movies trying to "cash in" on a particular pop culture craze, Viva Knievel! gets there a little late, arriving in theaters a couple of years after Evel had peaked. But that shouldn't dull your enjoyment of this cinematic epic, because in many ways Evel is Forever.
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After an opening credits sequence straight out of a Wonder Woman episode, the film proper opens with Evel sneaking into an orphanage late at night (a middle-aged man skulking around a kids' bedroom in the dark, no problem there) to deliver toys for the kids. Not just any toys, though: Evel Knievel toys!
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One kid, inspired by Evel, throws his crutches aside and says if Evel can walk away from all those horrible crashes (which he really shouldn't have had if he was any good at jumping over stuff), then he can do! One of the nuns who runs the place chastises Evel for stirring up the kids, but even an agent of The Lord is no match for Evel Knievel! So suck it, God!

Evel then starts to prepare for his next big jump. We meet his mechanic, the once-great-but-now-boozed-up Will Atkins (Gene Kelly, on the road to demolishing a great career), and a reporter named Morgan (Lauren Hutton), who is there to cover Evel's next jump. Because if he crashes (likely) and dies, it'll make a make a great story!
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The filmmakers assumed they could give Knievel and Hutton some Tracy/Hepburn sparkling repartee, because they start squabbling from the first scene. But Hutton is no Hepburn, and Evel Knievel is not exactly Spencer Tracy, so all their scenes just seem pissy and weird: Hutton's photographer seems less than professional, and Evel just looks like a big jerk.

Before Evel performs the big jump (which looks like it's taking place at a high school, in front of about a hundred people), he takes a moment out to tell kids: hey, don't do drugs!
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With that weirdness out of the way, Evel does the jump--or, more accurately, doesn't: he crashes and is immediately taken to the hospital, leaving all those spectators to wonder why they paid full ticket price for something that would have been a five minute show, at best.

While in the hospital, Evel resists all efforts to return to the game (remember, he's the hero of this movie), despite the urging of his former protegee Jessie (Marjoe Gortner, whose screen presence was as awkward and ungainly as his name). Turns out that there's more to Jesse than meets the perm: he is being backed by some drug runners (one played by Leslie Nielsen!) who want to use Evel's convoy to sneak drugs from Mexico (this was the 70s, was that even illegal then?).

There's a whole subplot involving Will and his estranged son (who is way too young to be the sire of Gene Kelly, who was in his 60s here). Will is a big jerk to the young boy, so he is looked after by fraidy-cat Evel Knievel. Will learns of the plot to have Evel die during his Mexico stunt and the drug smuggling, so some goons knock him out and put him in a mental institution under the care of a corrupt doctor (Dabney Coleman). Evel sneaks into the hospital and rescues Will:
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Well, sort of rescues: in a move that Spielberg and Lucas would steal for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Evel leaves Will in the place so the drug runners don't realize Evel is onto them.

Having decided to resume his stunts, he's about to do the big jump in Mexico when Jesse--high on drugs (say no, kids!) confronts him and says he is the best jumper. He knocks Evel out with one punch, climbs on his bike, and does the jump. But because the bike has been tampered with, it crashes, killing Jesse.

Evel finally learns of the whole plot and, and hour in, the film finally delivers something like an action sequence: Evel, astride his motorcycle, busts into the hospital and grabs Will, and off they go to find the caravan (which also features a kidnapped Morgan and Will's son; don't ask).

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Evel and Will split up, and our hero stops the drug runners, ending with a nice car crash. Will and his son are reunited, and Morgan realizes she has the hots for Evel. He performs the original stunt scheduled for Mexico, and in the final shot the film freezes on Evel, with the opening theme making a return. The End!


As you might have guessed, Viva Knievel! is a terrible film. Evel, through no fault of his own, is a terrible actor, and has no business being the lead of a major movie. When they made a bio-pic about Evel's life in 1971, they cast George Hamilton in the role. I've never seen that film, but odds are it's better than this, which feels like an extra-long episode of pretty much any cop show from the time. The stunts are okay of course, but almost all the other characters are extremely unlikeable. And for a movie about a motorcycle daredevil, having him try to make jump, fail, and then lay in a hospital bed whining for the middle section doesn't really make you root for the guy.

But I will say this: Viva Knievel! is never boring: I watched it with some friends a few months ago and we had a great time yelling at the screen. And right at the point where you start to get a little bored, it wraps up with some nic explosions. How Mystery Science Theater 3000 never got around to this movie is beyond me.

Viva Knievel!


Monday, June 23, 2014

Movie Monday: Cannery Row

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This week's movie is the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic Cannery Row!

A few weeks ago I took out Cannery Row from the library (The Grapes of Wrath was checked out) and found that, despite its brevity (less than 180 pages) I found the book difficult to comprehend. There isn't much plot really, just a series of vignettes about the various denizens of Cannery Row, and I kept saying to myself, what is Steinbeck saying here?

I was interested enough to keep reading, and I eventually finished it. I still felt confused as to what the deeper themes were, so I did some research online and came away with a greater appreciation for the book. I did genuinely like Cannery Row, so it made me think maybe the movie version was worth checking out as well?

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The films stars Nick Nolte as the main character, Doc, a marine biologist. After a quick tour of the other locales in Cannery Row, it's clear that while Doc is admired and respected in the town, he doesn't really fit in: highly educated, he has a purpose of intent that a lot of the others do not (including a comical gang of underemployed fisherman, led by Mack, played by M. Emmet Walsh). Doc collects octopi for research, much to the general confusion of the others.
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New in town is Suzy (Debra Winger), who comes looking for work but finds there isn't much. She's forced to look for room, board, and work at the local bordello, run by Fauna (Audra Linley).
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The film tries to recreate the book, in presenting a series of short sequences about the citizens of the town. The one story thread from the book adapted here is when the motley gang of fisherman, all of whom like Doc very much, decide to throw him a party. But the festivities get out of hand and a brawl breaks out, which ends up breaking Doc's octopus tank.
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The other story thread is lifted from Steinbeck's Cannery Row sequel, 1954's Sweet Thursday (which I have not read). That's where all the stuff with Suzy comes from, for she is not a character in the original book. Here, Suzy thinks she recognizes Doc, and wonders why such an accomplished man would choose to live in such a depressed (in more ways than one) little burg like Cannery Row. That sets up the movie's main plot, and gives the chance for Doc and Suzy to fall in love.


I had a difficult time with Cannery Row the movie as I did with Cannery Row the book, but for different reasons. From the Steinbeck I have read (which is, admittedly, not all that much), one of the virtues of the man's work was a directness and lack of sentimentality, even when he's talking about eccentric bums like the ones here, or his faithful dog Charley in Travels with Charley. But the movie--directed by first-timer David S. Ward (Major League and, er, Major League 2) is so cutesy presenting these lovable losers that the whole thing feels quite twee, an experience I've never had while reading Steinbeck.

Nolte is good as Doc, and Winger is okay as Suzy, but everyone else in the movie just doesn't feel real. There's narration from John Huston(!) which feels like the voice of Steinbeck himself. It works some of the time, but other times it feels like you're just having someone read the book to you. Visually, everything is shot through a gauzy haze, which again romanticizes all the goings-on, when living in Cannery Row was actually probably pretty depressing at times. I'm not saying the film should have been some gritty drama, but I can't help but feel that Ward just couldn't quite pull this tricky tone off. As I was watching, I wondered what Robert Altman might have done with this material.

Even with all my misgivings, I found Cannery Row tough to actively dislike, because it seems like the cast and crew is in their pitching (no pun intended, for those of you who have seen it). But overall the movie just doesn't really work, so I think you can call Cannery Row a noble failure.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

"4 Reasons Why Aquaman Deserves More Respect: A Fan Speaks Out"

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Upon news of Jason Momoa's casting as Aquaman in Batman v. Superman, Yahoo Movies was nice enough to ask me to write an article about why Aquaman is no joke. The piece, "4 Reasons Why Aquaman Deserves More Respect" can be found here!