Tag Archives: Universal Pictures

Born in East L.A. (1987, Cheech Marin)

Born in East L.A. is a much lighter comedy than expected. Maybe not more than writer-director-star Cheech Marin portends—and a lot of the film’s ineffectiveness isn’t first time feature director Marin’s fault, he needed one of his four editors to have some clue about creating narrative continuity. And while his cinematographer—Álex Phillips Jr.—isn’t at all incompetent, one does wish he’d have given Marin some pointers about how to frame establishing shots. There are a number of times in the film where it seems like Marin’s setting up a sight gag but… no. He really just doesn’t seem to realize he doesn’t have to shoot in medium shot so much.

Marin’s an L.A. mechanic who goes to pick up a visiting cousin (Paul Rodriguez, in a role cut down what probably ought to be an uncredited mega-cameo) and gets scooped up in an immigration raid. So while Marin’s getting deported, Rodriguez is trying to figure out his way in L.A. He’s staying with Marin and family, but family is out of town, which gets to be a problem since Marin needs someone to come down to the border with his ID so he can return home. The casual, nonspecific, almost benign racism from the border guards—including Jan-Michael Vincent is the boss in one scene, which should probably be uncredited too, even if it wasn’t cut down. Just having creative opening titles would probably help the film a bit.

Anyway, the racism. It doesn’t just date East L.A. it makes the film a very peculiar cultural document. At least in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, because once Marin realizes he can’t sneak across the border, he sets about making some money to buy his way back across.

One of the major plot holes, which may or may not be a result of the cuts, is whether or not his family ever misses him; they’re only supposed to be gone for a week. There’s some stuff with Rodriguez alone at the house and it’s all pretty funny, but doesn’t go anywhere. For a while, Rodriguez is giving the film’s best performance too. Because Marin starts the movie wanting the audience to think he’s a bit of a goon. The opening titles, while they aren’t giving away all the eventual cameos, is all about Marin following a woman (Neith Hunter) around L.A. landmarks and catcalling her. Only, because Marin’s not really good at the shots—if they’re not second unit—it’s never clear she hears his catcalling, which just makes him an ineffective stalker? He’s definitely supposed to be harmless, but it’s not clear how lovable he’s supposed to be for quite a bit longer into the film. When he tells someone about his history in the U.S. Army.

Marin hides he’s got backstory for about sixty of the film’s eighty-five minutes. Odd, odd, odd choice.

Though I suppose when you consider him being a vet who can’t get back into his country… but, wait, 1980s, all the border guards were swell fellows.

Marin’s got some really good gags, some really good jokes, a handful of excellent ideas; he’s able to execute about thirty percent of them satisfactorily. The plot’s pretty traditional, down to greasy scuzball Daniel Stern—but not dangerous greasy scuzball—being Marin’s “boss” and sidekick in Mexico (Stern’s in forced expatriation) and Kamala Lopez as a love interest (though, as she’s eighteen years younger than Marin, he comes off like an uncle, chemistry-wise). They could’ve had someone pretty easily doctor the script. Just saying.

Instead, the film’s a hodgepodge of funny moments and performances—Lopez is more likable than good, while Stern is funnier than good. Producer Peter Macgregor-Scott really should’ve gotten Marin a better crew.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheech Marin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Don Brochu, Stephen Lovejoy, David Newhouse, and Mike Sheridan; music by Lee Holdridge; production designer, Lynda Burbank; produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Cheech Marin (Rudy), Daniel Stern (Jimmy), Kamala Lopez (Dolores), Paul Rodriguez (Javier), Jan-Michael Vincent (McCalister), Lupe Ontiveros (Rudy’s Mother), and Tony Plana (Feo).


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The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957, Jack Arnold)

The Incredible Shrinking Man is an enormous feat. It succeeds thanks to director Arnold, writer Richard Matheson, and star Grant Williams. Arnold’s arguably got the greatest successes; he carefully lays the groundwork for the film’s eventual startling visuals. To get to the startling ones, Arnold’s got to get through some absurd ones. Only the first act visuals aren’t startling or absurd, they’re just mundanely peculiar. Even when Williams finally gets it confirmed—his suspicions are correct, he is somehow shrinking—the film gets some energy out of William Schallert giving the news in a very William Schallert way, but otherwise tension doesn’t rise. It’s still early in the film, which only runs eighty minutes and more than half of it is a survival picture; Arnold and Matheson pace things out gradually in the first section. Even though every scene perturbs the plot, Matheson is really just moving Williams into position for the real story to come.

The story of man against his environment, an environment of his own unintentional making. All the smart moves Arnold makes in the beginning as Williams shrinks from six feet tall to three feet tall, all the elaborate set decorating, the outstanding matte shots… the second half survival picture is where Arnold and the crew up the effects work. As Williams shrinks to the height of a doll, then to a matchstick, the effects requirements grow exponentially. It’s a lot easier to have Williams sit shrunk on a couch across the room from regular-size wife Randy Stuart, but getting him into a dollhouse so she can lean down and talk to him like he’s Fay Wray? Arnold doesn’t just up the effects ante, he also takes into account how much more fantastical his visuals are getting. He’s got to sell it all to the audience.

And he does. Shrinking Man is always inventive in how the effects get integrated, because eventually the effects become the visual plane. Reality is long gone.

Matheson does just as well changing gears from the opening medical thriller picture to the survival one. Williams—who narrates the whole picture, usually to solid effect—has entirely different expectations in the second half of the film than the audience. The first half, they’re pretty much inline as far as predicting the plot. Especially if an audience member has seen the posters advertising film as the “Dollman vs. House cat”. Williams doesn’t have the exact same expectations, but he operates with a lot of fear, which comes out in his performance but not the narration. The narration—which ends up being Matheson’s only problem area for specific, somewhat unrelated reasons—is all past tense. Even though Williams spends the first half of the film writing his life story, the narration isn’t that written account. It’s something else, which Matheson never identifies. It’s a soft spot, but given some of the other soft spots in the script, it might be better he doesn’t place it in time and place.

Just to get them out of the way now—the other two soft spots in Matheson’s script? The gentle attempts to comment on Williams’s changing masculine self-image. It all has to do with Stuart, who establishes herself in the first scene as this strong partner. And Williams appreciates her as such. Loads of chemistry in the first scene. Just because the script doesn’t give Stuart anything to do after her second scene, which mostly has her making breakfast, she never gets downgraded either. I guess it’s kind of a larger soft spot overall—the way Matheson abandons Stuart to get to the sci-fi medical thriller. As Williams gets smaller, he gets meaner to Stuart, but he’s really aware of it, both in narration and scene. Stuart’s going to assume he’s really apologetic in a scene because they’re both going through a fantastic trauma. The audience knows from the narration he means it. So it’s all a dramatic wash, which wastes not just Stuart, but Williams as well. They’ve only got so much time together.

Third soft spot is Matheson’s attempt to tie it all into God and the cosmos. The film doesn’t really need it—like, even for 1957, Shrinking Man never gets too sacrilegious in its Nuclear Age sci-fi—but Matheson uses it when he runs out of plot ideas. It’s a really strange move, which might have worked in the source novel (also by Matheson), but doesn’t come off visualized. And given how well Arnold visualizes everything else in the picture, he’s got to know, right?

Besides Williams and Stuart, only April Kent and Paul Langton make much impression in the cast. Kent’s the nice little person who Williams bonds with. It’s an undercooked plot point, but effective. Kent’s good. Langton’s Williams’s older brother, who ends up caring for Stuart after Williams… shrinks too much. It’s a throwaway character, who just sits around taking agency from Stuart, usually in exposition dumps, and Langton’s really bland in the part.

So they stand out for very different reasons.

Excellent photography from Ellis W. Carter, good editing from Albrecht Joseph; great special effects, great sets. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a big success, it just should’ve been an even bigger one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Albrecht Joseph; produced by Albert Zugsmith; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Grant Williams (Scott Carey), Randy Stuart (Louise Carey), Paul Langton (Charlie Carey), April Kent (Clarice Bruce), Raymond Bailey (Doctor Silver), and William Schallert (Doctor Bramson).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE RICHARD MATHESON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY RICH OF WIDE SCREEN WORLD AND DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI.


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Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

Crooklyn is a series of memories. They’re mostly the main character’s memories—and if they’re not, they’re definitely from her perception. The memories start in the spring and go through the summer. Director Lee and his cowriters—and siblings (Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical) Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee frequently change the pace of the memories. Some are long scenes with a lot of action, some are shorter transitional scenes, memorable for their placement in the narrative and their location. The Lee siblings are very comfortable with the film’s narrative distance and changing it; they nimbly move between characters during the first half or so then turn around and slow down to focus on the protagonist. When they speed up again, there’s still the same tighter focus, but a lot more going on and at a different pace.

Zelda Harris is the protagonist. She’s nine years old; the only daughter of schoolteacher Alfre Woodward and successful working musician but not successful composer Delroy Lindo. She has four brothers. Carlton Williams plays the oldest, presumably Spike. He’s a jerk. He also gets the most material to do because he’s the oldest and he and Harris have a whole character arc going on through the movie but it’s one of the quietest subplots, because there’s not much room for laughs. Because Crooklyn has a lot of laughs. Woodward’s intense and the kids are stinkers. And Lindo not really being any help is one of the louder subplots. The masculinity isn’t terribly toxic, but it’s far from good. It leads to some big fights and tense discussions between Woodward and Lindo, which feature some phenomenal acting from the pair. Harris usually gets involved too, since her brothers are too busy being boys. The brothers being boys often contributes to a lot of the humor, which the script never uses to alleviate the drama. The two can coexist, but ones not a solution for the other.

As the film goes on—it starts towards the end of a school year, with Harris dreading the possibility of leaving Brooklyn to visit Southern relations over the summer. There are no scenes at the school. The film either takes place on the block, in the house, or down South. Until the third act, anyway. Third act is a completely different—appropriately—story for locations. But as the film goes on, the Lees take their time establishing the ground situation, establishing the characters, establishing the relationships. Exposition dumps are rare, usually only when they need to give context for an earlier detail, usually from Woodward, who is very fallible, she’s just not fallible about dumb things. She’s never sainted in the film, but she’s closer than anyone else to being a saint. The script doesn’t shy away from children’s cruelty or stupidity (not even Harris’s). It also is very careful in how it portrays Lindo, who takes the longest to get established. It’s a great script.

When summer finally arrives—in the second half of the film—and Harris goes down South to visit aunt and uncle Frances Foster and Norman Matlock and, more, cousin Patriece Nelson, Harris gets to really run the movie for a while. She gets to experience the strangeness of her relations and the South, but not to be aware of how that experience is going to perturb her character development.

Because she’s nine.

When the summer vacation is over, there’s a different Harris, but there’s also a very different situation waiting for her back at home. The script changes the pacing of the memories. Some events get missed, some events have more weight, and we’re watching Harris exist through them and experience them but have no idea what’s happening to her. Crooklyn isn’t a kids movie per se… but it’s also not not a kids movie. The film’s always from a kid’s eye-level, let’s say, and then it turns out that eye-level just perfectly matches Harris’s. It’s a really great script.

Performances—Harris, Woodward, and Lindo are the whole show. There are some really good supporting performances (Isaiah Washington’s performance as a Vietnam vet deserves its own movie). But it’s all about Harris, Woodward, and Lindo. As for whether Harris has better scenes with Woodward or Lindo on her own… it’s probably Lindo, just because how the character development arc goes. But there are still some fabulous ones between Woodward and Harris. Harris knows Lindo’s not exactly the most responsible adult. So lots of gristle for scenes.

Technically, Crooklyn’s near flawless. Great photography from Arthur Jafa, even better editing from Barry Alexander Brown, which is made even more effective thanks to the awesome Terrence Blanchard score. Wynn Thomas’s production design is awesome too. Especially when Harris goes down South and Lee stretches the screen to show it as otherworldly (distorted and televised). The production design is almost more important during that section, since the audience has to see and understand what Harris is seeing because she might not really understand it.

The stretching is director Lee’s most extreme style choice. He’s got a dream sequence, which fits into the film’s existing stylistic flourishes—Spike Lee appears a neighborhood glue-sniffer and jerk, so he gives himself most of the flash. It fits, given how his stand-in, Williams, treats Harris. Meanwhile, Joie Lee–Harris being her stand-in—shows up as a slightly overbearing aunt. Uncredited. Third screenwriter Cinqué Lee doesn’t cameo.

I haven’t even gotten to the soundtrack, which maybe was produced by Alex Steyermark. The use of seventies songs is exquisite, both in the narrative—as a detail—or as non-diegetic accompaniment of the scenes. It’s awesome.

Crookyln’s awesome. Harris, Woodward, Linda, and Lees Spike, Joie, and Cinqué make something special.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Joie Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee, based on a story by Joie Lee; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Zelda Harris (Troy), Alfre Woodard (Carolyn), Delroy Lindo (Woody), Carlton Williams (Clinton), Sharif Rashed (Wendell), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph), Christopher Knowings (Nate), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes), Patriece Nelson (Viola), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Norman Matlock (Uncle Clem), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), and Joie Lee (Aunt Maxine).


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Bend of the River (1952, Anthony Mann)

Somehow Bend of the River manages to be too cluttered while running too short at ninety-one minutes. The film starts great; James Stewart is a former bad man of the West who’s trying to be a good guy and become a farmer (or rancher if he can get himself some cattle). He’s guiding a wagon train to Oregon and has gotten in good with the group leader Jay C. Flippen, who has two fetching daughters too young for Stewart—Julie Adams and Lori Nelson. Stewart teases Nelson and has a nice relationship with Adams, where it seems like he’s got an interest but isn’t going to do anything about it.

Right away—the best thing Borden Chase’s script does is move things along quickly—right away River introduces Arthur Kennedy, who’s another bad man from the Middle West moved further out west to escape his past. Or at least escape the law. Kennedy’s not a repentant bad man. Stewart takes an immediate shine to him and the two pal around for a while, including a fantastic action sequence where a group of Native Americans attack the wagon train. River’s mostly apolitical, at least as far as the Native Americans are concerned. It eventually gets to being about White man greed, brought on by gold lust.

But first the wagons have to get to the settlement, which is mostly done in summary, set to Flippen giving a very religious manifest destiny speech.

Flippen’s one of the film’s bigger problems. Him, Julie Adams, and—eventually—Jack Lambert. Flippen’s character hates bad men of the West (and doesn’t know Stewart used to be one, but does know Kennedy is one) and otherwise doesn’t have much character to him. He apparently could care less about his daughters (the characterization is so slim in Chase’s script it’s unclear if the mom is still alive) other than to complain once Adams takes up with Kennedy. Adams taking up with Kennedy is all she gets to do in the film. And it’s after a multiple month gap in the present action, so she’s barely defined at the start other than the light flirtation with Stewart and then she’s Kennedy’s de facto fiancée when she comes back in. Lambert I’ll talk about later.

The film does pretty well for a while after the time jump, with the previous material foundation, but then it doesn’t really go anywhere. Stewart, Kennedy, Flippen, Adams, and charming gambler Rock Hudson (who seems shoehorned in but whatever, he’s charming) are on the run from gold crazed Howard Petrie, leading to some decent material, even if Petrie’s performance is bad. Bend has a problem with villains, because director Mann and screenwriter Chase want Kennedy to be a possible villain—he’s got to be dangerous, even if Adams adores him and Stewart thinks he’s a good guy. Lambert is the other main villain. Stewart hires Lambert and some other guys (town drunks) to help them get upriver (including the utterly wasted Harry Morgan and Royal Dano) and Lambert wants to mutiny. The mutiny stuff is terribly plotted and requires Stewart to be dumb, multiple times. Right before he turns into a (mostly offscreen) action hero.

The finale has a big action sequence but none of the skillful execution Mann showed at the beginning. The movie hinges on Stewart and Kennedy’s chemistry, but then gives Flippen a bunch to do with Stewart instead. And Flippen can’t make the poorly written role work. No one could.

I haven’t even gotten to recurring supporting cast members Stepin Fetchit and Chubby Johnson. They’re sort of a comedy duo. Johnson is a riverboat captain, Fetchit is his right hand man. Lots of mild jokes at Fetchit’s expense, usually from Johnson (who wishes they could go back to the Mississippi because he presumably wants more Black people around to treat badly). Both actors—even with Fetchit’s caricature—are better than Petrie or the town drunks, just because they at least have… I don’t know… because they’re reasonable caricatures. Lambert and company seem like they’re from a different movie, which is sort of the fault of the jump forward in the present action, but because Mann and Chase do such a shoddy job with it.

After appearing to do a decent enough job with it.

Adams having chemistry with Stewart or Kennedy (outside a couple kissy scenes) would help a lot too. Plus Hudson just stands around until the script needs him for something. He’s underutilized given his obvious potential, but overused in the script.

Mann’s direction is occasionally impressive, occasionally mediocre. Same goes for pretty much everything else—technically speaking—except Hans J. Salter’s music, which is always fantastic. Stewart’s okay until he’s got to be a hard-ass and then the script falls down on the character development. Face plants really. Kennedy is great, even though the script pretends he doesn’t have a character arc. Bend is best when it’s about Kennedy and Stewart. Once it makes time for Adams and Flippen, it loses their rakish charm. There’s so much potential when they’ve got it and the film wastes it.

Mann and Chase make it through most of the film without revealing they don’t have anything to finish it up. Once it becomes clear they don’t—which is actually long before the aforementioned disappointing finale showdown—the film becomes rather tedious, which is never a good thing with a ninety minute runtime. It’s too bad; Stewart and Kennedy deserved a better picture. Adams probably did too. Maybe even Flippen. Definitely Hudson (but for him, he more deserved not to be shoehorned into this one).

Bend of the River is a filmic shrug.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Mann; screenplay by Borden Chase, based on a novel by William Gulick; director of photography, Irving Glassberg; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Aaron Rosenberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Glyn McLyntock), Arthur Kennedy (Emerson Cole), Julie Adams (Laura Baile), Jay C. Flippen (Jeremy Baile), Rock Hudson (Trey Wilson), Howard Petrie (Tom Hendricks), Chubby Johnson (Cap’n Mello), Stepin Fetchit (Adam), Jack Lambert (Red), Lori Nelson (Marjie Baile), Harry Morgan (Shorty), and Royal Dano (Long Tom).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ARTHUR KENNEDY'S CONQUEST OF THE SCREEN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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