Five films we recently recorded and then stayed up too late checking out.
For the movie addict, DVR’s are the enemy of sleep. With their easy to use onscreen plot summaries and simple recording features, it’s nothing to set something to record, day or night, and come back to it when you’ve got the time. Besides the premium networks, Fox Movie Channel, American Movie Classics, and the incomparable Turner Classic Movies all show dozens of films a week, most of them – to us, anyway – too tempting not to hit the jolly, candy-like record button.
We’ve recently checked out these five films, going over them in multiple sittings and then browsing the web for background information to give their virtues and faults some (often much-needed) context. A few of them are markedly better than others, while one or two are just about at their proper level as a late-late-LATE feature. But, we realize every old film is probably somebody’s favorite, and the opinions below are just our own.
FM (1978): Long on style and short on character development, this loose dramedy is a pleasant enough romp about disc jockeys at a freewheelin’, free-format Los Angeles radio station, one seemingly a million miles away from both the disco and punk revolutions. The rambling plot sometimes tries too hard to embrace Robert Altman’s formlessness via legendary cinematographer John A. Alonzo’s (Chinatown) direction, while too many characters clutter up the proceedings. Cleavon Little and Martin Mull do impress, however, as jockeys using their star power mostly to get laid. Thoughts before turning off the light: A missed opportunity to make a true cult classic, unfocused and trying too much at once to settle on a tone or meaning. Like the vanished AOR format it celebrates, it’s only fun until something comes on you don’t care for.
Music Within (2007): A feel-good, true-story movie that wants you to like it, and you want to, too, except it doesn’t quite come together like it should, despite a hell of a lot of advantages. Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers) stars as Richard Pimentel, who overcame a strained childhood with a schizophrenic mother and then almost total deafness sustained during the Vietnam War to crusade for disabled persons’ rights. The film follows Pimentel as he gives up a safe corporate job to follow his dream and talent of public speaking, as well as his long friendship with a writer almost completely debilitated by cerebral palsy (Michael Sheen). Thoughts before turning off the light: Too many cliched scenes and too much underwritten dialogue spoils a great story. Though it’s not exactly the case, in retrospect two-thirds of the film seemed to take place in musical montage. Pimentel, for all his accomplishments, probably deserves a better tribute. Livingston is almost always better than the films in which he appears.
Thieves Highway (1949): When his truck-driver father is crippled by a crooked San Francisco fruit merchant (Lee J. Cobb), war veteran Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) drives a truckload of apples up the pre-freeway California coast to get even. Gorgeously directed by noir master Jule Dassin (The Naked City) and tautly written by A.I. Bezzerides, adapting his own gritty novel. The performances are all flawless, especially Valentina Cortese as a hooker put into Garcos’ line of fire and Millard Mitchell as the doomed trucker trying to do right by the Garcos family. Thoughts before turning off the light: Criterion deserves props for including this film in its catalog; the chase sequence was riveting.
A Woman’s Secret (1949): A singer with a burned-out throat (Maureen O’Hara) stands accused of shooting her more successful, though far more uncouth, protege (Gloria Grahame). Her piano player lover (Melvyn Douglas) sets out to prove her innocence, instigating a series of flashbacks. Director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause) does the best he can with the potboiler material, though there’s a going-through-the-motions feeling throughout. Grahame, always disdainful of her singing voice, lip-syncs her musical numbers. (The film’s production brought about Ray and Grahame’s disastrous marriage). Thoughts before turning off the light: Were it made today, this sleek little b-movie would be a centerpiece of any ratings period for the Lifetime Movie Network, or even a comeback project for Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.
Deterrence (1999): Set in the then near-future world of 2008, the nation’s first Jewish president (Kevin Pollak) and his staff scramble to deal with Iraqi aggression while stranded in a snowbound Colorado diner. Far from having a mandate, President Emerson is an appointed veep who came to the office through attrition, and his races, ethnic and campaign both, only complicate the rapidly escalating tension. Critic-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie (The Contender) wrote and directed this, his debut feature, and his grasp and reach haven’t quite come together yet. Pollak is energetic, while Timothy Hutton is convincing as his pragmatic chief of staff. Thoughts before turning off the light: The ending is a total cheat, as frustrating as a lesser episode of The Twilight Zone but without the creepy ambience; Pollak’s presence is missed on the current movie landscape.
For what little it’s worth, here’s what up next in our DVR queue: The 70s sci-fi classic Westworld; The ebullient mystery Shadow of the Thin Man; Noir heavyweights Sterling Hayden and Dan Duryea facing off in Manhandled; and the early-career Marilyn Monroe suspenser Don’t Bother To Knock. Feel free to post your own recommendations below.