Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Wild One (1953)

Thank you, Marlon Brando.

James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause, reviewed on this site last week, did little for this movie fan.

But The Wild One, a 1953 drama from director Laslo Benedek (Death of a Salesman) packs some real punch. It's well worth a view.

There's a sense of unease through much of this brief 79-minute feature.

Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) leads a motorcycle gang. The ruffians on wheels get a quick heave-ho when they stop in one small community. But a weak sheriff, Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith), a population mostly anxious not to get involved and a bar owner who sees potential to make plenty of money on booze sales, Frank Bleeker (Ray Toal), result in Strabler and his boys setting up for a night of carousing.

Bar employee Kathie Bleeker (Mary Murphy), niece of the boss and daughter of the sheriff, soon catches Strabler's eye. For a guy well familiar with being the boss and in control, Bleeker is a rare curve ball. He likes her. She likes him. But she packs a lot more punch - emotionally - than he anticipates.

Some town folk, especially Charlie Tremas (Hugh Sanders), want the sheriff to clear Strabler and his boys out of town. Pronto. But Harry, unlike his colleague in that earlier town, isn't an enforcer. He wants to make nice.

That proves a problem when Chino (Lee Marvin), and his crew of bikers, also arrive in town. Seems Chino and Johnny belonged to the same biker gang, but split up. They're adversaries, not friends. Meanwhile, the booze keeps flowing, stores start to be looted and Charlie and some other residents opt to enforce the law on their own. Trouble is brewing and someone is bound to get hurt, or killed.

There's lots to enjoy here. Brando was in the middle of a run of some of his biggest roles - A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954) and Guys and Dolls (1955) all hit the screen within a five-year span. Impressive.

Marvin, quite a busy man establishing his reputation in the early 1950s, shines as the nasty Chino. He's Strabbler without the, if you look for it, kind heart.

The Wild One isn't too subtle about this, but it also raises questions about really laying down the law or trying to make nice. Guess which one works? Charlie's approach to justice also suggests who is the greater danger to a community - transient bikers eager to drink and romance the ladies or citizens eager to grab clubs and start tracking down troublemakers.

Too bad about how really obvious it is Brando isn't riding his own bike. Not a big problem, but it's a distraction. Murphy is impressive as a beauty with a brain. She wants out of the small town and always dreamed some fella would make an appearance and take her away. Johnny may take her heart, but will he take her too. "Why do you hate everybody?" she asks him. We get some idea near the film's end, but Johnny doesn't talk much.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Robert Keith appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone, The Masks, in 1964.

Yvonne Doughty is Britches, an old flame of Johnny's. She only has five television and film credits between 1949 and 1955. The Wild One is the only title that gave her screen credit.

The Wild One is based on The Cyclists' Raid, a story published in Harper's about young bikers who invaded a small town in July 1947.

Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando seldom spoke off-screen, writes Stefan Kramer in Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Rebel Without A Cause, what a depressing film.

The kids are unhappy. Their parents are unable, or unwilling, to help them.

For teens from families with very nice homes - bullying, knife fights, dares, death.

The adults fight, want to avoid problems or skip town for good.

Jim Stark (James Dean) is tired of running. His parents pack up when he hits a rough spot. Stark gets picked up by police for public intoxication in the latest community he calls home. He's not the only one from a supposedly good home who's in trouble with the law.

John 'Plato' Crawford (Sal Mineo) shot puppies. "Nobody can help me," he tells police. His mother is seldom home. Dad is long gone.

Judy (Natalie Wood) wants to be loved by her father, but he doesn't believe in showing affection to his oldest child. He called her "a dirty tramp." She's out in the early morning hours. Police ask if she was seeking company. Is that 1950s speak for soliciting sex?

Stark experiences what appears to be the worst first day of school known in human history. He's not even in the door of his new high school when he's taken to task for walking on the school's emblem. School tough guy Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) and his crew aren't impressed with the new kid. They square off in a knife fight after a visit to a planetarium. A further challenge is given to Stark. Show up for a game of chicken with Buzz using two stolen cars.

The consequences of that dare are far-reaching. Stark wants to come clean with police about what happened. His parents want him to keep his mouth shut. Buzz's buddies figure the new kid has confessed what everyone else wants to keep hush hush. They want revenge. Plato, with his fragile psyche, gets pushed over the edge when he sees a letter from his absent father.

I've heard a lot about this film given it's one of only three features screen legend Dean made.

I wasn't overly impressed. Given Buzz's fate, it seems odd that Judy would want anything to do with Jim - at least for a while. Stark is affected by what happens, but doesn't dwell on the incident. Odd. Police fire more shots at Plato when he goes off the rails than have been discharged in my hometown in the last 30 years.

What grabbed this movie fan was how the parents of each leading youth actor was treated. Frank Stark (Jim Backus) is wearing a frilly woman's apron at one point. This guy can't stand up to his snippy wife Carol (Ann Doran). She in turn faces withering comments from her mother-in-law Mrs. Stark (Virginia Brissac). "It's a zoo (at home)," the young Stark tells police officer Ray Fremick (Edward Platt).
Rebel Without A Cause is filled with angst, anger and rebellion. The teen years still have a lot in common through the generations.

RATING: 6/10

FUN FACTS: Jim Backus started voicing cartoon character Mr. Magoo in 1949. He was also part of the castaways on Gilligan's Island.

Edward Platt was Chief on television's Get Smart. He was also in two other Hollywood classics - Cape Fear and North By Northwest.
Rebel Without A Cause looks like a career highlight for William Hopper. He had a small role in Stagecoach.

Rebel was Dennis Hopper's film debut.

Ann Doran was a secretary in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

James Dean received Academy Award nominations for best actor for his work in Giant and East of Eden. He was killed in a collision.

Director Nicholas Ray appears in the film's final scene.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Up (2009)

Readers, please cut me some slack.

Reel Popcorn Junkie is dedicated to reviewing films released at least 10 years ago.

It's 2014. Up came out in 2009. But this movie fan missed this fine animated film's theatrical release. I quickly grabbed it at my public library last week.

Good choice. Glad I didn't wait another five years.

Up, winner of two Oscars including best animated feature, is a lot of fun. But the scene that stands out for me the most comes early on when we're introduced to a young Carl (Jerome Leary) and Ellie (Elie Docter).

Carl is riveted watching newsreels about adventurer Charles Muntz (Christoper Plummer). This guy goes to lands never seen. "Adventure is out there," he proclaims. Carl meets up with Ellie (Elie Docter) on his way back from the show. She's keen to live the life of an adventurer too and has started by calling an abandoned home her playground.

The two kids hit it off. They get married. And then, the scene.

With no dialogue, just some melancholy piano, viewers see a series of snapshots of Carl and Ellie's life together. We learn Ellie dreamed of having a big family and is devastated when she's told she can't have children. The couple keeps trying to save for an adventure to Paradise Falls, Muntz's last known destination. But more mundane costs keep coming up that drain their savings. It's Ellie whose health fails first and Carl (voiced by Ed Asner as an adult) is ripped apart by her death. So, in a span of a few minutes co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have crafted a beautiful film within a film. Great stuff. There's another couple of scenes later on that are handled the same way. No explosions. No special effects. Simple vignettes. Beautiful.

Carl's getting old. His home is surrounded by skyscrapers. A clash with a construction worker takes a nasty turn. A home for seniors beckons. Carl doesn't want to go. He chooses to escape the big city and finally make good on his lifelong dream. He's headed to Paradise Falls. Carl didn't count on Russell (Jordan Nagai) tagging along. A member of some Boy Scouts-like group, Russell is eager to land his wilderness experience badge. He had offered earlier to help Carl and ended up floating away with Carl when the senior sets sail by unleashing a huge volley of balloons through his fireplace. Pretty neat, eh?

The pair make it to Paradise Falls, but life there isn't quite a dreamland. Muntz, years later, is still around, but hasn't dedicated his time to the betterment of humanity. This is one angry old man. "I have unfinished work here," he declares. "They called me a fraud." When Carl and Russell manage to attract a rare bird Muntz has tried to capture for years, watch out. Carl just wants to be left alone in paradise. Russell is eager to help the bird. Muntz wants the bird stuffed.

Up works the conservation angle with the bird who has some babies she has to raise. Old dreams are realized with Carl's trip. Russell finds the father figure he's looking for while earning his stripes.

No hokey songs. Very little bathroom humour. Great imagination with a house being carried away by many small balloons.

Get up about seeing Up.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Co-director Pete Docter directed Monsters Inc.

Bob Peterson, making his directing debut, also supplies the voices for Dug and Alpha. He was the voice of Roz in the Monsters films.

That's Canadian actor David Kaye doing the voiceover work on the movie newsreel. This guy has done loads of voicework since starting his career in the mid-1980s.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Miss Congeniality (2000)

There's no prize for Miss Congeniality (Deluxe Edition).

Good laughs are hard to find in this romantic comedy from director Donald Petrie and starring Sandra Bullock. Sandra, I'm grateful for the memory of While You Were Sleeping, Speed and Gravity while watching this tripe.

My humour meter saw little movement for much of this often dull and dumb movie. Reporters will often note the first shot on net if a hockey team's offence is lacking. Well, I clocked my first laugh during Miss Congeniality at 43:45. That's well into a third of this movie. How could a sequel follow?

Not only are laughs hard to come by. There's also situations too hard to believe in this film.

Audiences are supposed to buy Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is not an attractive woman. Hello! My eyes are nearing 50, but FBI Agent Hart still looks good to me before her transformation by beauty pageant guru Victor Melling (Michael Caine) and a small army of hired guns.

What's striking is her hesitation, and uncomfortableness, speaking up about what she believes to be true. Gracie, you're an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is the big time. How could you get hired if you were so lousy in the communications department?

What's also confusing is the running gag about Hart's obsession with doughnuts. For someone who supposedly doesn't eat well, Agent Hart isn't carrying a lot of extra weight. So, she must exercise a lot - such as with the punching bag in her apartment. Let the woman eat.

Hart is assigned to be a contestant in a beauty pageant. The annual scholarship contest is likely the next target for a terrorist, The Citizen. This film came out a year before a series of terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. I imagine the plot - a comedy riffing on a terrorist attack - would have been deep sixed if this movie went into production after the Twin Towers came down. It feels creepy.

Hart's makeover draws the attention of fellow agent, and womanizer, Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt). So, Matthews won't pay any attention to Hart when she's an ugly duckling. Suddenly her physical appearance gets honed and Matthews is enchanted. Hey, Hart! Is this the type of guy you want to be with? An always on-the-go Romeo eager to make the moves on just about any attractive woman he crosses paths with? I don't understand.

Back to the FBI angle. Hart gets a good lead that The Citizen is someone associated with the pageant itself. She pipes up about why she thinks a lead her boss and the rest of the agents are keen to follow a false lead. They don't listen. Hey, Harry McDonald (Ernie Hudson). You're the boss. Where'd your brains go?

Miss Rhode Island (Heather Burns) is played up as a complete airhead, but she's working on a post-graduate degree in nuclear fission. Someone with those kind of brains is not going to be the ditz Miss Rhode Island is here.

I feel bad for Candice Bergen, as long-time pageant boss Kathy Morningside. Her character is a joke. William Shatner is emcee Stan Fields. Captain Kirk isn't well-served here either. The only veteran actor who shines bright is Caine. Some of his barbs about Hart fall flat, but he does score some zingers too. "I haven't seen a walk like that since Jurassic Park," he notes during his first meeting with the federal agent.

Despondent after the film's first 70 minutes, I clung to hope that things would pick up. They did. There are some very funny moments in the last 40 minutes of Miss Congeniality. Matthews getting recruited for Hart's talent demonstration is funny. Hart battling with other contestants to save The Citizen's intended target is funny. Morningside's final zinger to Hart - "When I met you, Dennis Rodman looked better in a dress," - is funny.

But boy, there's a lot of hard slogging to get those laughs. I'd strongly suggest voting for another comedy when laughs are on the menu.

RATING: 5/10

FUN FACTS: 2000 was a busy year for releases starring Michael Caine and Benjamin Bratt. Bratt also appeared in Traffic, Red Planet, The Last Producer and The Next Best Thing. Caine was featured in a remake of Get Carter, Shiner and Quills.

Miss Congeniality (Deluxe Edition) marked the film debut for Asia De Marcos, who appears as Miss Hawaii.

Yes, Deirdre Quinn - who appears as Miss Texas - gets credit for singing Debbie Boone's You Light Up My Life.

Miss Rhode Island (Cheryl Frasier) also appeared with Bullock in Two Weeks Notice in 2002.

Ernie Hudson appeared in an episode of Diff'rent Strokes.

Donald Petrie directed Mystic Pizza in 1988. That was Julia Roberts' third film appearance.