Friday, July 6, 2012

How I Watch Films and the Old One-Two

I always fall behind in chronicling the films I watch.  The primary reason for this blog is to provide (myself) a complete list of films I've watched.  Frequently, I search this blog for a film that I cannot remember the title of or to remind myself of the when and where of the viewing.  It's sort of an movie log with an enhanced narrative for most of the films. Some people (not very many according to Google Stats) come along for the ride.

I do not own a DVD player.  When I want to watch a DVD, I play it on my computer which I can (but usually do not) hook up to my television.  My new laptop doesn't even have a DVD player so I don't know what I'll do after I retire the old one.  I do have cable TV but each month when I receive the bill, I vow to look at other options.  I don't have premium channels such as HBO or Showtime.  A co-worker was recently telling me about Game of Thrones of which I was blissfully ignorant.

I don't even get the second tier premium channels such as TCM which I watch when I visit my father in Las Vegas.  I do watch AMC but not their original programming such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  I didn't start watching those shows at the beginning so I don't want to come in at the middle.  I always tell myself I'll watch the series of DVD after the original run.  However, I told myself that about Deadwood and The Sopranos but haven't done so.  The thought of holing up and watching 17 hours of DVD over a weekend just doesn't appeal to me.  Now that my new computer doesn't have a DVD player, I won't even be able to lie to myself about watching the DVDs.

As I ponder this, I realize my cinematic lifestyle could only be indulged in a handful of locations.  I visit Las Vegas frequently and there are no rep houses.  I was there last week and was surprised to see Monsieur Lazhar screening at one of the metroplexes.  As I mentioned last year, there isn't even a functioning 35 mm film projector in Las Vegas. 

So it is that I live this existence which is something out of the 1970s (pre-VHS).  I scour the dwindling rep house schedules (albeit on the internet) and plan my free time around these screenings.  I need the help of a spreadsheet to track what I will see and what I have seen.  I need to further document what I have seen on this website so I can recall it later.  Sometimes I am amazed at my recollection.  I recall specific movie scenes or dialog; typically when prompted by another movie scene or dialog. 

I think that's why I like The Family Guy because the cutaways frequently reference films which I immediately recognize.  For example, The Family Guy has a series of Road to... episodes which are spoofing the Hope-Crosby-Lamour series of films from the 1940s and 1950s.  When I mentioned this to someone recently, they were completely oblivious to the reference.  I wondered if they even knew who Hope, Crosby & Lamour were.


Rather than digressing into the walking anachronism I am, I'll knock out some film notes.

Following up on a 2009 seriesPFA had a series in June called One-Two Punch featuring films based on the works of Dorothy B. Hughes, Mickey Spillane & Elmore Leonard.  I caught half the films in the series.

Fallen Sparrow starring John Garfield & Maureen O'Hara; directed by Richard Wallace; (1943)
Stick starring Burt Reynolds; with Charles Durning, Candice Bergen & George Segal; directed by Reynolds; (1985)
Valdez is Coming starring Burt Lancaster; with Jon Cypher, Susan Clark, Richard Jordan & Barton Heyman; (1971)

Fallen Sparrow was adapted from a Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same name while Stick & Valdez is Coming are Elmore Leonard works.

These films were probably a case of great novels being adapted into mediocre films.  Fallen Sparrow, in particular, hinted at something better.  PFA curator Steve Seid introduced all  three films (on two separate evenings) and mentioned something about a serial killer in Fallen Sparrow.  That would have livened up the film quite a bit.  Instead, I was confused byt the plot twists and what I did understand seemed ludicrous.  The whole plot revolved around John Garfield's character.  An American who likely fought on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War.  Captured and tortured by the Nazis associated with the Spanish Nationalists, Garfield withholds "vital information" from his captors.  Although vague about the torture, I am guessing that photos of him in a naked dogpile or wearing a leash were not part of the Nazi bag of tricks.

Originally from New York City, Garfield recovers in New Mexico, I believe.  When he finds out that the NYPD cop who arranged his escape in Spain (using contact from "the old country") has died under suspicious circumstances, he returns to the Big Apple.  The NYPD brass are surprisingly permissive when Garfield implies his goal is to avenge his friend's death.  Maureen O'Hara shows up as a hat model and there is a slinky torch singer with a suspicious Eastern European pianist and then Garfield's ex-girlfriend has fallen in a European refugee with an academic in methods of torture.  There were a bunch of other characters.  I couldn't keep track of them; I needed a scorecard.

What could the son of a NY flatfoot know that has the Nazis in a tizzy?  Garfield's unit defeated a German unit in Spain.  Unfortunately, the unit was commanded by Hitler's favorite general so der Führer risk exposing his espionage network to track down Garfield in NYC to recover the battle standard which I gather is the ornamental headpiece of the pole used to carry a military unit's colors into battle.  I recall Napoleon used eagles and they were guarded closely.  However that was the early 19th century.  I wonder if anyone in the audience during the mid-20th century when this film came out thought it ridiculous that the Nazis would expend so much energy over an ornamental medallion?


Coming on the heels of Stoker Ace, Smokey and Bandit Part III, Canonball Run II and City Heat, Burt Reynolds attempted something more weighty in Stick.  Written by Elmore Leonard, whose better adapted works include Get Shorty & Jackie Brown, I'm not sure if the source material was lacking or if Reynolds (who was also director) messed it up.

At times Stick is so bad its funny but every once in awhile it flashes something resembling greatness.  In fact, Stick reminded me a little of Sharky's Machine (1981) which isn't surprising since Reynold directed both films.  Sharky's Machine, adapted from a William Diehl novel, had a dark and gritty edge to it.  I guess after five years of Stoker, Smokey & Cannonball, Reynolds wanted to have it both ways.  I can imagine Reynolds thinking he needed to get on the Miami bandwagon in the mid-1980s...kind of like Miami Vice but different.  So we're treated to the sight of Charles Durning wearing a ridiculous wig, George Segal wearing a thawb (yes I had to look that word up) and Reynolds wearing a pastel pink, Members Only jacket that looks like something Sonny Crockett gave to Goodwill.  That's just the wardrobe.  The dialog is painfully awkward at time. 

The plot is essentially Point Blank or Payback - tough guy feels a criminal owes him a nominal amount.  Nothing will dissuade said tough guy from collecting...not even the threat of a vicious criminal organization.  Candice Bergen plays the female lead although she doesn't get to do much.  Famed stuntman Dar Robinson memorably plays an albino hitman and even recreates his Sharky's stunt of free falling off a building.

After watching Stick, I recall why Reynold's career needed a comeback a decade later in Boogie Nights.  I do wonder what Reynolds could have done if he had had more discipline in his choice of films and self-direction.


Valdez is Coming was my favorite of the three films; most likely because of my fondness for Burt Lancaster.  Looking at Lancaster's filmography from the 1970s, it's pretty sparse pickings.  Between The Professionals (1966) and Atlantic City (1980), of the films in which Lancaster is one of the leads, only a handful look worthwhile.   Valdez is Coming and Ulzana's Raid (1972) are two of the most prominent films.  I would also like to see Go Tell the Spartans (1978) one day and rewatch Zulu Dawn (1979) sometime.  

Like Stick, the premise of Valdez is Coming is that Valdez, an aging tough guy (Lancaster), feels an Apache widow (married to a buffalo soldier nonetheless) is owed $200 as compensation for the death of her husband by Valdez and a mob organized by wealthy rancher Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher).  Tanner's response to Valdez's request that Tanner chip in $100 is to have his men literally crucify Valdez and send him off into the wilderness.

Tanner and everyone else thinks Valdez is just an old Mexican who somehow managed to get a job as town constable watching "over the Mexican side of town."  However, in his youth, Valdez was a US calvaryman, Indian fighter and expert marksman.  After getting loose of the cross (the scene appeared to have been partially missing from the print that was screened), Valdez dusts off the Army uniform and starts hunting Tanner, his men and the elusive $100.  He allows his first victim (Hector Elizondo) to live and return to Tanner's ranch to tell him "Valdez is coming."

Valdez almost gets the money except for the intervention of the number 2 man in Tanner's outfit, the aptly named El Segundo (Barton Heyman).  Valdez is forced to flee into the mountains with Tanner's "woman."  Gay Erin (Susan Clark) has a widow who is shacked up with Tanner (whom many believe killed her husband).  As El Segundo notes, she doesn't smile much.  In fact, the man killed at the beginning of the film was hunted by Tanner after being accused of killing Erin's husband.  As Tanner & El Segundo lead the gang in chase of Valdez, the slowly come to realize the skill and lethality of their prey.

Although disguised as a chase film, Valdez is Coming is very critical of racism, both overt and subtle.  I think it interesting that Tanner's right-hand man is Mexican.  Valdez and his old friend (Frank Silvera) have a memorable conversation where they mock/rue the white hegemony that keeps them as second class citizens.  That the Mexican Valdez is played by the Irish American Lancaster adds an irony to the film which was probably missing upon its original release.

Far from being a great film, Valdez is firmly entertaining.  Lancaster, Cypher, Heyman and Richard Jordan as a cowardly and racist hired gun play their parts with assurance.  Lancaster's star power or screen presence never failed him.  I sense that Leonard's book was better but the Valdez screening benefitted from following Stick.  The audio track on the print was very poor; there was static throughout the film.

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