PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (A)
U.S.; John Ford, 1962, Paramount
John Ford's last great Western is a visually spare, deceptive masterpiece, and it boasts the Casablanca of all movie Western ensemble casts -- a remarkable gallery, topped by friendly legends James Stewart and John Wayne.
Stewart is Ranse Stoddard, an idealistic Eastern attorney at law, who listens to Horace Greeley and "goes west" to the wide-open town of Shinbone, where he discovers danger and destiny -- and then returns years later for the funeral of an old friend. Wayne is that friend: Tom Doniphon, horse rancher, ace gunman and Ranse's sometimes unemthusiastic guardian angel. Vera Miles is Hallie, the woman "prettier than a cactus rose" caught between them, who sees the wilderness grow into a garden. Lee Marvin is Liberty Valance, the cattlemen's demonic enforcer, gunslinger and murderer. Edmond O'Brien is the drunken but eloquent newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody. They're all fantastic, at or near their best.
The lusty supporting ensemble, including the remnants of Ford's classic repertory company, includes Andy Devine as the cowardly, free-loading Marshall Linc Appleyard, Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef (as Liberty's "myrmidons"), John Carradine as the cattlemen's mouthpiece, Denver Pyle, Anna Lee, Ken Murray, O.Z. Whitehead, and Carleton Young as the pushy new editor who demands an explanation for Ranse's presence at Tom's funeral and becomes privy to a shocking, poignant historical confession.
Liberty Valance is practically a Western noir, shot in sometimes noirish black-and-white, with few landscape scenes and framed as a crime-story murder mystery that finally reveals the deceptive underpinnings of our social fabric and national mythos. That's "reveals," remember. Ford's stubborn detractors often scoff at the matchless maker of Westerns for the scene here when Young tears up his story, explaining "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" -- completely forgetting that Ford has just "printed the fact" to all of us, and exposed the conventional history of Ranse and Valance as a lie and the editor as a cover-up artist.
Although much of Liberty Valance is a boisterous, rollicking Wild West tale, done in a rambunctious, unbuttoned and highly theatrical performance style, it turns into one of the saddest Westerns ever made, as elegiac as Ford's How Green Was My Valley. I cried the first time I saw it, at the moment when Willis Bouchey's effusive conductor proclaims "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!" and Jimmy Stewart, giving a last dark look at his lost past, shakes out the lit match in his hand. I still do. (Extras: Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, including audio interviews with Wayne and Stewart; documentary; trailer; picture galleries.)
El Dorado (A)
U.S.; Howard Hawks, 1967, Paramount
In that '50s-'60s movie Western dreamland we know so well, aging sure-shot hero John Wayne, recovering drunk Robert Mitchum, cocky kid James Caan and colorful old coot Arthur Hunnicutt are besieged in the town jail by a corrupt rancher's hired guns, just as Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan once were in Howard Hawks' pop classic Rio Bravo. The approach is similar -- easy-going, impeccably done, character-rich comedy laced with an occasional shootout or barroom brawl, with a little romance thrown in (Charlene Holt and the spunky Michelle Carey fill in for Angie Dickinson's immortal Feathers), one scene and gunfight rolling with consummate smoothness and expertise into another, ending with a blazing gun-down climax and the comforting sight of two triumphant guys strolling down a Western street.
Like Rio Bravo, El Dorado is seamlessly professional and an awful lot of fun. But the mood is different, the look crisper and more elegiac, the heroes more fallible. Wayne's Cole Thornton has a handicap Rio Bravo's John T. Chance never had to suffer: a bullet lodged near his spine (too dangerous to remove till after the battle is over) that periodically twists him into paralysis and screaming pain. Mitchum's J.P. Harrah stinks and staggers more than Martin's Dude (the role that got Dino tagged, wrongly, as a big drinker). Caan's Mississippi can throw a knife but he can't shoot for shit. And Hunnicutt's Bull often seems handier with his bugle and a wisecrack than his cackling, deadly counterpart, Brennan's dynamite-heaving Stumpy.
El Dorado -- written by longtime Hawks collaborator Leigh Brackett, who co-scripted Rio Bravo with Jules Furthman -- began as an adaptation of Harry Brown's Western novel The Stars in the Courses; Brackett described it then as a sort of Western Greek tragedy. But Hawks, who had shown a tragic or dark vein early in his career (The Dawn Patrol, The Road to Glory, Scarface), showed more upbeat tastes later on, and he switched the plot midstream to Return to Rio Bravo to get back in his own comfort zone. It's hard to complain, even though Brackett thought her original script was the best she ever wrote for Hawks. We like this quartet so much, we don't want them shot up either.
I love this movie, and I don't agree at all with the contingent that ranks El Dorado way below Rio Bravo, or the anti-western bunch who think both movies are over-aged, overweight clunkers. It's a fine-looking show; the very fussy cinematographer was Hal Rosson, who shot The Wizard of Oz, The Asphalt Jungle and Duel in the Sun. The memorable score and title song are by Frank Sinatra's master arranger Nelson Riddle ("Only the Lonely").
And the supporting cast is top-notch: R.G. Armstrong plays the good rancher, Ed Asner is the corrupt one, Chris George is Asner's unfailingly professional top gun, and Paul Fix is the doctor who won't take a chance on extracting the Duke's bullet. All this talent and experience sits well on a movie that jauntily celebrates professionalism and movingly defies age. (Hawks was 71 when it was released.) For me, everything here works -- and even if something doesn't quite hit the mark (like Mississippi's gunmanship), I like it anyway.
By the way, the Remington-like oil paintings under the credits are by Olaf Wieghorst -- who also pops up as an actor playing the Swedish gunsmith Larsen, and makes an allusion to Hawks admirer Franois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. The poem "El Dorado" that Jimmy Caan keeps reciting ("Ride, boldly ride") is by another great American pro whom the French admired first: Edgar Allan Poe. (Extras: Commentaries by Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel, Todd McCarthy and Ed Asner; documentary; interview with A.C. Lyles; vintage featurette, trailer.)
Saxophone Colossus (A)
U.S.; Robert Mugge, 1986, Acorn Media
A wonderful jazz documentary and concert film, with probably the best of all living jazz improvisers, then and now: tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The numbers include "Don't Stop the Carnival," "G-Man" (the performance where Rollins makes his famous jump) and the world premiere, in Tokyo, of Rollins' "Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra," with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. (This is just the kind of piece Charlie Parker always wanted to create, and the concert is worthy of Bird.) Out of sight! A personal note: I played this movie's namesake and original Rollins album, Saxophone Colossus, all though my college years. My only complaint here is that Mugge didn't include Rollins playing that tremendous record's two finest cuts, "Blue Seven" and "St. Thomas." (Extras: Interview with Mugge.)
Zabriskie Point (B+)
U.S.; Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970, Warner
A student radical on the run after a shooting (Mark Frechette) hooks up with a hippie girl (Daria Halprin) with an older lover (Rod Taylor); the youngsters' sexy desert encounter is followed by tragedy, death and blowup.
Michelangelo Antonioni never got worse reviews than he did for this intensely sympathetic look at American antiwar youth and rebellion in the Vietnam War years, ridiculed in its day as a flaccid, overromantic, dramatically inert eruption of radical chic from an Italian filmmaker who didn't know what the hell he was talking about. (His script collaborators, by the way, were Sam Shepard, Clare Peploe and his usual co-writer, Tonino Guerra.) It's true that pretty boy Frechette, who later died in prison, isn't much of an actor, and that Halprin, though more effective, isn't too much more skilled. (Antonioni would have been better advised to cast one of his bit players, the young Harrison Ford.)
But the acting in his films was never Antonioni's strong suit, even when he was working with first-raters like Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Richard Harris, David Hemmings or Vanessa Redgrave. (He conveys emotion in other ways.) And, visually, this is one of his most stunning, beautiful, riveting works, as well as a portrayal of the times that still rings mostly true -- at least to me. Watch (and listen) to the way Antonioni evokes desert isolation and Western sensibility with exquisite Alfio Contini camerawork and Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz" in the café scene. Cinematically, it's a knockout.
By the way, speaking of music, this movie has some great stuff also by the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards screaming on "You Got the Silver"), Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia. But I've always hated the last title song by Mike Curb, who eventually became the Republican lieutenant governor of California. I suggest, when it comes on, that you do what I always did when I showed Zabriskie Point in college at the University of Wisconsin: Turn the sound off.
Of Time and the City (B+)
U.K.; Terence Davies, 2008, Strand Releasing
The sometimes mournfully brilliant British independent filmmaker Terence Davies returns to Liverpool, the place of his birth and growing up -- and the setting of his graceful, wounding autobiographical family portrait Distant Voices, Still Lives -- for a movie that is poetic documentary, dark memoir, melancholy ballad, sex-haunted travelogue and subtle and lyrical classical and pop-music-drenched eulogy all at once.
The movie is non-dramatic, composed almost entirely of shots of Liverpool past and present, accompanied by ironic, despairing or elegiac narration, written and spoken by Davies. The director's somewhat John Gielgud-ish, actorish voice envelops those photographic/cinematographic images -- black-and-white or color, culled from archives or newly shot -- with a Shakespearean lamentation, burdened or charged by memory, flayed by desires both physical and spiritual.
Davies also laces those recollections with scraps of poetry or literature (Shelley's "Ozymandias"), snips of the social and cultural history of the '40s through the '70s (Queen Elizabeth's coronation), old songs or classical pieces (Kern, Hammerstein and Peggy Lee's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," the Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother"), classical pieces (Brahms' "Lullabye," Liszt's "Consolation No. 3 in D Flat Major," Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony), all to evoke his Liverpool dreamscape, this reverie-soaked photo-album of his smoky, ocean-lapped, working-class urban port homeland.
Stretching back to the immediate post-war years, as the battered district tries to struggle back to normality, through the '50s of Davies' movie-haunted childhood (the first film he saw, memorably, was Singin' in the Rain), through the seedy, sweaty pro wrestling matches and immaculate Catholic church confessionals that tormented his adolescence with sexual longing and guilt, through the '60s live heyday of his fellow Liverpudlians, the Beatles (the rock 'n' roll-hating Davies lived across from the Fab Four's pop den/showcase the Cavern during their quick rise to local fame, yet never caught their act), to the '70s and to sunny shots of Liverpool today, Of Time and the City is, in every precious minute of its passing, a loving but sad picture of his time and his city. (Extras: Interviews with Davies and others; on-set footage, trailer.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Western Adventures
U.S.; various directors, 1969-73, TCM: Warners
Another excellent TCM package, with two masterpieces (The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller), one sometimes neglected gem (Jeremiah Johnson) and one rousing entertainment (The Train Robbers).
Includes: The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969, A), with William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson; McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971, A), with Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and Keith Carradine; Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack, 1972, B+), with Robert Redford and Will Geer; and, The Train Robbers (Burt Kennedy, 1973, B), with John Wayne, Ann-Margret, Rod Taylor, Ricardo Montalban and Ben Johnson.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
New in Town (D+)
U.S.; Jonas Elmer, 2009, Lionsgate
Welcome to New Ulm, Minn., where the tapioca is fine, the snow is omnipresent, the accents are out of Fargo, ice fishing is the town craze, the local most eligible bachelor and labor union rep is played by Harry Connick Jr., and the local food plant is about to be downsized by a lot of mean big-city Miami executives in expensive suits, who've sent sexy little Lucy Hill (Renee Zellweger) up to New Ulm to do their dirty work. Heh-heh. Those dumb-ass city slickers! Don't they know widower Connick is waiting for her there, with an adorable little daughter, all primed to convert Lucy to the joys of tapioca and ice fishing?
Don't they know that Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hagon) -- who must be related somehow to Marge Gunderson of Fargo, because they talk alike -- is Lucy's secretary sweetie pie (and maybe her Ethel Mertz) and also the master tapioca chef? Don't they know Lucy, with her orange makeup, stiletto heels and repertoire of sexy sneers and baby-doll put-downs, will melt like one of those frosty snowmen and wind up battling the big bad Miami execs to save the little people and their jobs? (No Ann Coulter she. Lucy doesn't fondle checkbooks.) Don't they know that, as sure as shootin', Blanche's tapioca will somehow save the day, doncha know?
They may not know, but I'll bet you do. New in Town -- which could have been New Girl in Town if it were quicker on its feet -- is a movie where all the surprises are stupid ones and all the clichés are honored citizens. This movie doesn't work even if you like its late-arriving political theme of the little guy battling the big guy. (Which I do).
So picture this, guys. When hot Lucy shows up in New Ulm, to throw a lot of workers out of a job, she arrives smirking and scowling and insulting everyone. (Hey! All the executive backstabbers I ever met smiled and grinned so much, you'd think their faces would get a hernia.) Connick's Ted, probably one of the hottest bachelors (or widowers) New Ulm ever saw, doesn't even have a girlfriend, jealous or whatever -- though it'd be a nice secondary role for some at-liberty Hollywood sexpot, say maybe Jessica Simpson. When Lucy's car runs off the road and she piles up in the snow bank, and her cell phone doesn't work, and things look awful bad, she just starts drinking. (Maybe that's what the screenwriters did.)
There's a surprise or two in the credits. The director, Jonas Elmer, is a prize-winning maker of Danish art films, and one of the writers, C. Jay Cox, gave us the somewhat similar Sweet Home Alabama and the gay comedy about Mormon sex, Latter Days. Maybe that's what this movie is: a gay Danish Mormon art film in disguise. That might explain everything but the tapioca.
Still, despite its social intentions, this movie almost kind of reminded me of the kind of bad blue state-good red state hogwash you get from, what's their name, those loudmouth Fox dudes: Blimp Rushbomb? Sean the Sham Hammity? (Let not your hearts be troubled: I'm not making this up, guys.)
I'm just kidding. New in Town's heart is in the right place but its head seems to be somewhere north of Old Ulm. This movie is so bad that Minnesota, whenever it actually gets a U.S. senator, might consider passing a law against it. I'm serious. I come from a small Midwestern town myself (pop: 1,171 or so when I was there), and I'm getting sick of all these movie city slickers trying to love us to death.
And mucking up perfectly good actors too. Renee Zellweger, you li'l honeybunch, you keep those stiletto heels until you learn to stop falling off porches into snow banks. Harry Connick, this is not your From Here to Eternity or Some Came Running. J. K. Simmons, take off that silly beard and find a keg of beer someplace, for gosh sakes. And Blanche, whip up another batch of tapioca so this damned thing will end on time.
Whatever. At least you won't get a hernia from smiling or laughing at New in Town. Meanwhile, I hope all these small-town-loving moviemakers at least send us some of Blanche's tapioca. By gosh and golly, we deserve something for watching this!
Beyond Rangoon (B)
U.S.; John Boorman, 1995, Warner
Visually often remarkable, this political thriller sometimes stumbles on drama. With Patricia Arquette as a woman on the run in Burma, Frances McDormand and Spalding Gray.
Falling Down (B+)
U.S.; Joel Schumacher, 1993, Warner
The ultimate road rage movie. Michael Douglas plays a white-collar Angeleno who reaches his boiling point and starts a deadly march through the town; Robert Duvall is the cool vet cop trying to find him. With Barbara Hershey and Tuesday Weld.
We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story (C+)
U.S.; Dick Zondag/Ralph Zondag/Phil Nibbelink/Simon Wells, 2009, Universal
Made by executive producer Steven Spielberg the same year as his Jurassic Park, this is another dinosaur show, and it's cuter. Four dino-pals (including John Goodman and Jay Leno) are spirited off in a time machine to modern New York City by a kindly old scientist (voiced, believe it or not, by Walter Cronkite), where they're headed for a kindly museum exhibitor (voiced, b.i.o.n., by Julia Child), before they and their kid buddies are sidetracked into a horrific circus run by Cronkite's evil brother (Kenneth Mars) and clowned by Martin Short.
This is better than its rep. The chancy script is by John Patrick Shanley (of Doubt and Moonstruck). The highlights: two renditions of James Horner and Thomas Dolby's catchy Mesozoic rock song, "Roll Back the Rock," the first by John Goodman (as Rex), the second (under the end-titles), a screamer from Little Richard.
Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (C+)
Japan; Seijun Suzuki, 1963, Kino
Seijun Suzuki directed a ton of action and cliché-packed yajuza and cop thrillers in the '60s while developing the wild, baroque style that flowered in movies like Branded to Kill. This combustible tale of a cocky journalist (played by smirky Jo Shishido), who joins the police, infiltrates a yakuza mob and throws everything into bloody, fiery chaos, is one of them. It's pretty silly, but it passes the time. And it does have some punch and style. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
U.S.; Budd Boetticher, 1958, Warner Archive
Taciturn hero Randolph Scott battles to keep the stage line running, against the villainous efforts of Andrew Duggan and Michael Dante and with moral (or immoral) support from Karen Steele and Virginia Mayo. Probably the least of the Scott-Boetticher Westerns, but still a good show.
The Red Lily (C+)
U.S.; Fred Niblo, 1924, Warner Archive
Two star-crossed French provincial lovers (Ramon Novarro and Enid Bennett) run off to Paris, become accidentally separated and plunge into the underworld and impending tragedy. From the director of Valentino's Blood and Sand and the Novarro Ben-Hur, Fred Niblo, who both wrote and directed here. The plot is a Borzage-like melodrama, but though it lacks Borzage's style, it holds your interest. With Wallace Beery and Sydney Franklin. Silent, with subtitles. With original score by Scott Salinas.