a circular, uninformative discourse on john f. kennedy and me
blu-ray series #4: robinson crusoe on mars (byron haskin, 1964)

what i watched last week

My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (Jim Sheridan, 1989). I was pleasantly surprised at how much humor there is in My Left Foot. It’s all part of the film’s refusal to rely on cheap tricks to make us cry at the poor bloke with cerebral palsy. Well, you could argue that Christy Brown’s life itself demands an emotional response, and Sheridan and company know this. But Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t try to make Christy likable, and Sheridan, while not being didactic, shows us what life in the lower-class Ireland of the times was like. Day-Lewis inhabits Christy Brown so deeply that he is often hard to watch, and his triumphs over his palsy are certainly inspirational. But instead of making a feel-good movie about a cerebral palsy victim, Sheridan has given us the story of a man with cerebral palsy. When the movie makes us feel good, it is earned, not knee-jerk. And Day-Lewis has a way of using his eyes to show when he’s feeling impish. He’s quite the charmer. 9/10. For another Jim Sheridan film, try In America. This is probably my favorite movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, but if you want to see another, how about The Unbearable Lightness of Being? And for a similar movie (at least, according to a web site I checked), I recommend Wit with Emma Thompson. To be honest, I recommend Wit anyway.

The Chase (Arthur Penn, 1966). This was my tip of the cap to the 50th anniversary of you-know-what. I tried to think of a movie that fit into that experience, and came up with this, which (spoiler alert) has a very Jack Rubyesque ending. I wrote about The Chase way back in 2004, and I’m going to cut-and-paste most of what I said then.

If I gave you the basic facts, you'd tell yourself it sounded like a classic, and wonder why you hadn't heard of it. The director was Arthur Penn, whose next two films (Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant) would win him Best Director Oscar nominations. The film was based on a novel and play by Horton Foote, who won two Oscars and two Emmys for his writing. The screenplay was credited to Lillian Hellman. The producer was Sam Spiegel, who had won Best Picture Oscars for three of the last five films he'd produced (On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia). Heading the enormous cast was Marlon "Greatest Actor of All Time" Brando. Also in the cast were Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall, James Fox, and even Paul Williams, the guy who wrote all those Carpenters' songs.

How could such a movie go wrong? And I haven't even mentioned the endlessly quotable dialogue, like my favorite, when Brando's Sheriff Calder shows up at a party being given by Janice Rule as Emily, (one of) the town slut(s). Surrounded by a bunch of male party attendees, Rule asks Calder to stick around for the party. "All you need to come to my party," she says, "is a pistol, and you've got one." "Well," is Brando's immortal reply, "with all the pistols you got there, Emily, I don't believe there's room for mine."

Perhaps that quote gets at the guilty-pleasure nature of The Chase, for I realize the above isn't great dialogue as much as it's camp dialogue. Suffice to say that the movie doesn't always work. Take the title, for instance: there's precious little chasing going on. Most of the movie is talk talk talk, as a bunch of drunk racist Texans party on a Saturday night. The action, such as it is, comes mostly in those party sequences, where middle-aged likkered-up Texans say stuff like "let's do the Jerk!" and then proceed to do it right there on the screen. (Meanwhile, Paul Williams, who was 26 years old at the time, plays a wild teenager with a penchant for trouble.) The highlight, as is often the case in a Marlon Brando movie, is the scene where Brando gets the shit beat out of him.

Critical commentary is all over the map, often focusing on reputed production difficulties. (Arthur Penn and Lillian Hellman, at the least, have apparently disowned the film. Hellman said "it is far more painful to have your work mauled about and slicked up than to see it go in a wastebasket.") Kael described it as "Our vines have no grapes left in this hellhole of wife swapping, nigger hating, and nigger-lover hating, where people are motivated by dirty sex or big money, and you can tell which as soon as they say their first lines. Why, even the kids are rotten: they dance." David Thomson thinks it's one of Penn's best films, and thinks it compares well to Spiegel's more prestigious productions: "The Chase will last; Lawrence and Kwai only prove the misplaced faith of respectable taste." The TV Guide review, on the other hand, gives the movie one star out of five: "a terrible disappointment, a jumbled, disjointed film directed feebly by Penn ... without purpose or basic interest ... Redford was so little used that he had to introduce himself to fellow cast members every time he set foot on the set." IMDB votes give it 7.2 out of 10, but 10.7% give it a 10, while another 11.8% give it a 5 or less, and sixty-nine people give it a 1.

The film's potential for audience rabble rousing is perhaps best explained by Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, in his review:

I saw it first with a group of mostly black Air Force airmen, who were on their feet shouting for Brando to start killing people. The Chase also played well to the radicals at the UCLA film school. A hot-headed Ethiopian exchange student (who hated 'the man' and liked to brandish an unloaded gun in the film department's tech office) identified with the Sheriff Calder character as a righteous loner who "should have killed 'em all."

I liked it again, as I always have. It is all of the things people say about it, and in the past, I’ve given it a 6/10 rating because there’s something a bit embarrassing about liking it. But why give in to that stuff? 7/10. For another Arthur Penn movie, I’ll skip past the obvious Bonnie and Clyde … maybe the mid-70s Night Moves? For a lesser-known Brando from the same era as The Chase, try Reflections in a Golden Eye. Again, trying to come up with a lesser-known selection, you might try Spirits of the Dead for Jane Fonda. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t trot out my regular recommendation of Performance, if you’re looking for something featuring James Fox.

Stonados (Jason Bourque, 2013). The latest classic from SyFy, this one is just as stupid as the others. A tornado somehow sucks up rocks, which it then flings back to earth with pulverizing effects. The most clever thing in the entire movie (if it was intended … otherwise it’s just accidentally funny) is when the movie takes Malcolm X literally. Malcolm once said, “We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.” Well, in Stonados, Plymouth Rock is ripped from the ground by the tornado, and dropped onto an African-American. Thea Gill from the American Queer as Folk turns up, and she has a great final scene, plus I never watched X-Files, but I’m told the Cigarette Man was in Stonados, playing a guy in a lighthouse. A few months ago, I said of Sharknado that the movie deserved 3/10 at best, but the social angle (it has already been largely forgotten, but for a day or two, Sharknado was big on Twitter and other social media) was so much fun that I gave the movie 5/10. Stonados was like Sharknado without the funny Tweets. 3/10.

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957). 10/10.

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