Blondie Johnson (1933) – My fellow classic film blogger/ClassicFlix contributor Laura from Miscellaneous Musings profiled this one at CF a while back and I got a glimpse of it the last time it was on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™. TDOY fave (and former Charlie Parker Gunslinger mascot) Joan Blondell plays the title role—a down-and-out working gal at the mercy of the cruelties imposed by the Depression. Not only does Joan lose her job because of a lecherous boss, but she’s unable to get government assistance to help with the food, shelter and clothing…so her pneumonia-stricken ma cashes in her annuity early. Blondie meets up with a small-time hood named Danny (Chester Morris) and together they put his boss (Arthur Vinton) out of the racketeering business by working harder and smarter at the long con.
For a pre-Code, Blondie Johnson ends with one of the sappiest endings of any film from that era—which is the main reason why I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I would have liked. Still, any feature with Blondell is worth a look-see (Joan is particularly drop dead gorgeous in this one), and you’ve got the usual Warners suspects like Allen Jenkins on hand. I liked Blondie’s female cohorts in the crime game, the breathtakingly beautiful Toshia Mori as Lulu (Mori plays Mah-Li in The Bitter Tea of General Yen) and (the ever popular) Mae Busch as Mae (natch). Sterling Holloway plays a cab driver and Charles Lane a cashier (and he’s getting younger with every old movie I watch).
Count the Hours (1953) – An itinerant farmhand (John Craven) is the chief suspect in the killing of a farmer and his housekeeper, and because he looks a little too good for the murder he gives his personal handgun to his wife (Teresa Wright) to hide…and she throws it in a nearby lake. Sadly, that’s the evidence that will exonerate him, so his defense attorney (Macdonald Carey) spends a lot of his own gitas to retrieve it…only to learn when it is found that its rusted condition can’t save his client. If that wasn’t proof enough that Craven’s drawn a bad hand, it looks as if he’s going to the chair without ever seeing his child that Wright is carrying.
The direction by Don Siegel is so swift in Count the Hours that you don’t really observe a lot of the plot implausibilities until it’s over (though you will notice that Wright is barely believable as a dowdy farmhand’s wife)…but it’s got a good supporting cast—including Jack Elam (as the real killer), Adele Mara (his halfwit girlfriend) and Dolores Moran (her hub, Benedict Bogeaus produced—rampant nepotism!)—and superb cinematography from noir master John Alton. And having Wright and Carey together again (the two of them played young lovers in Shadow of a Doubt) was a treat…believe me, I’ve seen worse.
Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie (1980) – And here’s one now! I watched the celebrated stoner duo’s second feature film only because it was the only C&C vehicle I hadn’t yet seen. It’s a tremendous letdown from their first romp, Up in Smoke (1978): Next Movie is an incoherent mess that allows Tommy Chong to direct and Cheech Marin to play two characters—both bad ideas in retrospect. The only reason why you’d be interested in seeing this is that a number of folks from the comedy troupe The Groundlings have small parts and cameos, notably Edie McClurg, John Paragon, Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens…who not only plays Pee-wee Herman but a snotty hotel desk clerk. Some critics thought this was better than their previous outing, which would seem to suggest that C&C were sharing the wealth.
The Last King of Scotland (2006) – Actor Forest Whitaker took home Best Acting Oscar honors for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in this adaptation of Giles Foden’s novel; a med school graduate named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) leaves his home base of Scotland for the life of working in a Ugandan missionary clinic, and after having an encounter with the new president (who overthrew previous ruler Milton Obote in a coup d'état), is encouraged by Amin to become his personal physician…not to mention being placed in charge of Uganda’s health care system. Sadly, Doc Garrigan fails to realize that this is a terrible vocational choice on his part, since being in the employ of a man who would go on to kill 300,000 of his fellow countrymen tends to follow you around in the event that you need to change jobs.
The Garrigan character is fictional, of course; Foden took a lot of the real events in Amin’s life and used them to invent a narrative that strays from the official record from time to time (Garrigan is loosely based on the British-born “Major” Bob Astles, an advisor to both Obote and Amin known as “The White Rat”). But Scotland is a most compelling movie, even if you already know the outcome; Whitaker is mesmerizing, and there are superb performances from McAvoy and Kerry Washington as the third Mrs. Amin. (The two of them have an affair, and I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to reveal that this wasn’t a good idea.) Gillian Anderson plays the wife of Garrigan’s patron (Adam Kotz), who is tempted to have an affair with the young student but remains true to her hub.
Frozen River (2008) – The best of the bunch. Two years before actress Melissa Leo won an Oscar (as Best Supporting Actress in 2010’s The Fighter) she was nominated as Best Actress for this crime thriller (written and directed by Courtney Hunt, whose original screenplay was also Oscar-nominated) in which she plays Ray Eddy, a working woman struggling to keep body and soul together with her two kids after her wanker husband absconds with the down payment she’s saved for a double-wide to go on a gambling spree. Circumstances throw Ray in with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a member of the nearby St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, and the two women embark in smuggling undocumented workers from the Canadian side of the reservation to the U.S., driving across the St. Lawrence (the “frozen river” of the title) in the process.
Frozen River is the type of movie I cherish: a suspenseful film that doesn’t need a bunch of stunts and explodiations to provide pulse-pounding excitement. But there’s also fascinating social content in the movie, focusing on the poverty hardships of two women (who are hostile to one another in the beginning) forced to break the law in order to survive a system seemingly stacked against them. Leo and Upham are both fantastic; I’ve not yet seen Fighter but I remember Leo from Homicide: Life on the Street and she was always one of my favorites on that (we used to call the show “Munch: The Baltimore Years” in deference to my Law & Order: SVU-loving mom).
The Wrestler (2008) – Undergoing plastic surgery might not have been the best career move for once-great thesp Mickey Rourke…but it gave him an edge in playing pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson in this film—Rourke’s comeback career role netted him a number of acting awards including a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Truth be told, I didn’t think I was going to like this one (I’m not what you’d call a rasslin’ fan) but he’s first-rate as a grappler whose 1980s celebrity has faded considerably and who now faces having to hang up his wrestling belt due to health issues (he’s just suffered a serious heart attack).
The only disappointing thing about The Wrestler is that there aren’t too many surprises in its narrative…but it’s still a first-rate film, with Rourke’s turn as the titular protagonist positively mesmerizing and excellent support from Marisa Tomei (as his stripper girlfriend) and Evan Rachel Wood (as the estranged daughter with which he’s desperately trying to reconnect). There’s plenty of pathos on hand as well as lighter moments (I like the humorous fact that Rourke’s “Ram” supplements his income working a supermarket deli counter), courtesy of fine direction from Darren Aronofsky and an exceptional (if predictable) script from Robert D. Siegel.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) – Hey, if I see a movie with Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer in the credits…naturally I assume that there will be scenery-chewing of apocalyptic proportions. Sadly, Kilmer’s role as Cage’s partner is pretty limited; it’s Nick who’s the show in this crime tale of an N’awlins detective who investigates the wholesale slaughter of an undocumented Senegalese family. While he tackles that, he also takes a copious amount of drugs (he’s been prescribed Vicodin for a back injury, but also addresses the pain with marijuana, cocaine and heroin), rapes, gambles and tries to fix a college football game. He’s a baaaad lieutenant. (No donut.)
Directed by the legendary Werner Herzog, Port of Call New Orleans is not a sequel to nor a remake of the notorious 1992 Bad Lieutenant, helmed by cult director Abel Ferrara. Ferrara was not on board with Herzog’s “rethought,” saying publicly: “As far as remakes go…I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” I think Ferrara was just pissed that Herzog made a superior film—I saw Abel’s original, and the only thing I remember about it was seeing star Harvey Keitel’s junk (which is why I occasionally wake up screaming some nights). I’m not quite as sold on Port of Call as some other critics but I can’t deny it wasn’t entertaining; you can always count on Cage to stir the batter, and he gets some good support from Eva Mendes (as his hooker girlfriend), Fairuza Balk (the scary dame from The Craft), Brad Dourif and TDOY faves Vondie Curtis-Hall and Irma P. Hall (no relation). (Tom Bower plays Cage’s father in this—no matter what movie I see him in I always think of him as the JFK conspiracy nut from 1989’s True Believer.)
Up in the Air (2009) – Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a professional “downsizer”; his specialty is going to various corporations to terminate those employees that need to be shown the street, and the nature of his job requires him to log a lot of miles in the friendly skies. This is jake with Bingham; he has no emotional ties nor commitments (he rarely sees his sisters) and his philosophy is summed up in the motivational seminars he conducts on the side: life should be as simple as the contents of a backpack. Because his company is going to eliminate the cost of airfare, hotels, meals, etc. by giving employees at other companies the heave-ho via teleconferencing; the brainchild behind this, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), accompanies Bingham “on the road” to learn the tricks of his trade…suffice it to say, Ryan is not on board (pardon the pun) with the idea of eliminating what essentially defines his existence.
I was a little hesitant to watch Up in the Air (consider this a “cinematic vegetable”) because I had reservations that a movie about a guy who fires folks for a living could work—it’s one of the reasons director Jason Reitman (in a film he co-wrote with Sheldon Turner, adapted from Walter Kim’s acclaimed novel) cast Clooney as the protagonist, reasoning that you’d need a charming actor to play a straight-up wanker. I enjoyed Up in the Air more than I expected, it’s a sad paean to loneliness, and I can identify with much of Bingham’s life philosophy (I remain unattached for many of the reasons he’s a bachelor) even though my family ties are admittedly stronger. Vera Farmiga plays Alexandra “Alex” Goran, Ryan’s like-minded fellow traveler with whom he starts to get serious, and Amy Morton made me laugh out loud as Bingham’s compassionate sister—who responds to her brother’s explanation of his motivational seminars with “What kind of f**ked-up philosophy is that?” Jason Bateman is Clooney’s shark of a boss, and the always welcome J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliott are also on hand as a terminated worker and airline pilot (respectively).
Trouble with the Curve (2012) – Look…I like Clint Eastwood. But he’s past his sell-by date; he needs to focus on directing films and not appearing in them, because his character in this vehicle (though he did not direct this one, I should point out) should be nicknamed “Old Man Yells at Cloud.” As Gus Lobel, Eastwood’s a scout for the Atlanta Braves who continues to work for the organization despite health issues (macular degeneration, for one). His co-worker and pal Pete Klein (John Goodman) knows that this is Gus’ last chance to prove his mettle, so he asks Gus’ daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to accompany Gus on a trip to North Carolina to scope out a minor league batting phenom (Joe Massingill). Mickey, despite dealing with her own work issues (she’s a lawyer seeking a partnership with her firm), agrees to go…and finds a romantic interest in an ex-ballplayer-turned-scout played by Justin Timberlake. (Why, yes—my eyes are rolling…why do you ask?)
There’s a scene in Trouble with the Curve where Eastwood’s character nearly gets himself and his daughter killed pulling out into an intersection…and for one brief shining moment, I thought this movie was going to be improved tremendously by letting Adams take over after planting her pa six feet under. I just had trouble warming up to this one, plus the movie veers off into unbelievability when the two Lobels convince Braves management to sign an untested kid (Jay Galloway) who’s a whiz on the mound. (Any Braves fan knows that could never happen. The guy who can’t hit a curve ball, on the other hand…)