Condensed reviews of movies we stayed up too late to watch.
The days are getting longer and we’re not going to bed any earlier. Movie networks like Turner Classic Movies and Fox Movie Channel continue to show stuff that catches our interest, even while the DVR makes watching them way, way too convenient. Movie channels run day and night, which means even the good ones – especially the good ones – sooner or later get down to the off-the-beaten-path works that, more often than not, feel like uncovered treasure. At least, they do for us.
The following are five movies we recorded, stayed up late checking out, and the next day felt both groggy, happy, and guilty all at the same time for indulging ourselves. Any of them rate a blog post of their own, and time willing we’ll get around to giving them the attention they deserve.
The Seal Wolf (1941): For pedigree, you really can’t do much better than this: Michael Curtiz directs John Garfield, Ida Lupino, and Edward G. Robinson in a big budget adaptation of Jack London’s underrated proto-existentialist novel. Curtiz takes a damp, gritty approach to the doomed voyage of the seal hunting vessel Ghost and its desperate crew, led by manically evil captain Wolf Larsen (Robinson). Garfield plays a fugitive whose sense of dignity won’t let him kowtow to Larsen’s caprices, while Lupino plays an escaped convict rescued (if that’s the right word) after a shipwreck.
Curtiz nails the foggy menace that surrounds the ship and the souls of its passengers, and Robinson and Garfield both polish their screen intensities to a white-hot edge. You can almost see the acrimonious sparks jumping between them. Also giving memorable, even haunting performances are Gene Lockhart as the ship’s rummy doctor given one last glimmer of redemption and Barry Fitzgerald (The Naked City) as a vile ship’s cook and turncoat informer. Only Alexander Knox disappoints, blandly portraying an author mesmerized by Larsen’s feral intelligence. Ultimately, the film is hampered somewhat by odd transitions and a plot that could stand to linger on its ideas a little longer, but the total result is nonetheless completely satisfying. Curtiz would return to the foggy textures and doomed, redemptive romance in his next effort – Casablanca.
Out of the Fog (1941): Released just three months later, Out of the Fog reteamed Garfield and Lupino while covering much of the same philosophical ground in a vastly different situation. Jonah (Thomas Mitchell) and Olaf (John Qualen) are meek, working class Brooklyn drones who escape the drudgery of their day-to-day lives (one’s a tailor, the other a short-order cook) by fishing in Sheepshead Bay from their modest rowboat. Jonah’s daughter Stella (Lupino) dreams of a more exciting life than her impending marriage to a local working stiff (Eddie Albert) promises; those dreams seem briefly close to fruition when she’s romanced by a gangster (Garfield) who’s come to the neighborhood to graft protection money from the local boat owners. Except he’s also extorting money from Jonah and Olaf, forcing the timid men to contemplate killing him to protect Stella and themselves.
Based on a play by Irwin Shaw, the film’s pervasive New Deal flavor of populism – “Ordinary people can love like millionaires or poets,” Jonah tells Stella – today comes across kind of dated and vaguely patronizing. Still, Garfield and Lupino’s chemistry is as sharp here as in The Sea Wolf, and the acting is impeccable all around, especially in the achingly vivid performances by Mitchell and Qualen.
Rebel Without A Cause (1955): It’s a film we’ve heard about all our lives and one we suspect is considered a classic by millions, but we’ll just say we don’t join in that opinion. The narrative wanders, characters are never really fleshed out beyond their positions in the script, and the ending is anything but satisfying or even conclusive. Directed by the semi-notorious Nicholas Ray (In A Lonely Place), the film seems to have something to say but, like its trio of over-indulged protagonists, can’t quite figure out what that is or why it might be worth saying. Maybe that was the point, but we don’t think so.
Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible to watch Dean’s performance - cool, deliberate, odd – and not recognize the influence it played on dozens of leading men that followed him, both immediately after his death and in the next several decades to come. Conversely, Natalie Wood’s blank, spoiled stare and girlish energy don’t suit her emotionally conflicted character, and Sal Mineo’s performance fails to capture the menace that the script suggests lurks just beneath his character’s milquetoast veneer, even while grasping at its confused sexuality. Overall, the film represents an interesting period piece, as far as that goes, but not a work worthy of its lasting popular stature.
Cutter’s Way (1981): If Rebel Without A Cause arrived at the peak of its era, the ennui and dissolution of Cutter’s Way represents the one drink too many at the ”who’s kidding who” party that was 70s American cinema. The trio of outsiders at its center – a gigolo, his bitter Vietnam vet friend and conscience, and the dissolute woman they both love – understand that something’s passing them by, even if, like the angsty teens of Rebel, they’ll be damned if they know what to do about it. Bone (Jeff Bridges ) witnesses the dumping of a dead body after hustling the bored housewives of Santa Barbara high society. When he thinks he recognizes the murderer the next day – one of the community’s most powerful oil tycoons, no less – his buddy Cutter (John Heard) devises a scheme to both blackmail the culprit and turn him in to the cops. Unless you’ve never seen a movie before, you’ve already figured out nothing goes as intended.
In the years since its release the film has borne comparisons to Chinatown, and given the trio of broken people at its center and the suburban California setting, it’s hard not to imagine what Robert Towne would have done with such a premise. Instead, director Ivan Passer leaves too many of the ambiguities in Jeffrey Alan Fiskin’s script (adapted by a novel by Newton Thornburg) unaddressed and unfocused, so that the final result isn’t the masterpiece that its best moments imply it could become. Of the performances, Heard is brilliant as the maimed veteran that understands the fences around the distant mansions are meant to keep him out, while Lisa Eichhorn is positively haunting as his doomed but devoted wife. Bridges, fresh off Heaven’s Gate, here began a flirtation with neo-noir that would last for half the decade (Against All Odds, 8 Million Ways To Die) but has seldom caught his interest since.
Transformers (2007): Friends have suggested we watch Michael Bay’s paean to Turtle Wax more than once, not for the acting, story, or script but rather just to watch “shit blowing up real good.” (We live in the South.) Look, we just gushed about a seventy year old seafaring adventure, so alien robots folding themselves into monster trucks and fighter jets probably isn’t going to naturally pique our curiosity. (On the other hand, we do love comic book movies, so maybe our friends thought the film stood an even chance.)
We promised in our mission statement to judge these kind of movies fairly and without condescension but man, there’s a limit. The film can barely stand up to viewing, let alone serious consideration. It’s an aggressively stupid pile of red state pandering that feels interminable when you’re watching any part of it but the admittedly enthralling fight scenes. They are the movie’s lone strength, but there’s not enough of them strung out along the almost 2 1/2 hour runtime to sustain interest.
What it does have in abundance is limp, broad comedy starring Shia LaBeouf and some actually rather tepid vamping by former-It Girl Megan Fox. The worst part is that we’re told the sequel “isn’t as good.” We can only imagine what that kind of weapons grade anti-quality that must entail.
That’s it for this week. We’ll be back next week with – finally – some reviews of current movies and DVD’s, and then another edition of our always-popular Miscellaneous Debris right after that. Thanks for reading.
- Michael Kabel