Islands In The Stream: Week Eight

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/12/20 01:27:55

Week Eight. . . Missed call. Just kidding, here comes yet another week of streaming recommendations for you to contemplate. This may turn out to be another theme week or it may not. Either way, I hope you like these ideas. If you do or you don’t or you have suggestions/scathing criticisms to make, drop me a line at and I try to get to them

As soon as I heard the news that Little Richard, one of the true originators and architects of rock music, had passed away the other day, I knew that I wanted to highlight one of the memorable film appearances that he contributed during his long career in addition to his day gig. Granted, nearly all of these found him either appearing as himself or as a very thinly disguised iteration--with his cheerfully flamboyant and outsized personality, I am not sure that he could have played anything else--but whenever he did turn up, even if it was just to bust out a song and then disappear, he brought such a shot of pure personality and energy to the proceedings that both the films and the audiences often needed a minute or two to settle down and regain their respective equilibriums afterwards. The question--which one to pick? There are a number of films where all he does is drop in for a song, such as "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956), "Don't Knock the Rock" (1956) and "Catalina Caper," a weird 1967 exploitation film where he shows up out of nowhere, delivers the deathless tune "Scuba Party" to a gaggle of pasty white and long-in-the-tooth "teenagers" and then disappears just as suddenly. On the other hand, there was "Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," the 1987documentary about the fellow music legend that included alternately hilarious and heartbreaking moments in which the two, along with Bo Diddley, discussed the old days and the racism that they faced in their careers. (Although only a few minutes of these interviews made it into the actual film, the Blu-Ray contains nearly an hour of the three talking and is worth purchasing just for that alone.) All of the projects I have mentioned are worth seeking out--maybe less so in the case of "Catalina Caper"--but at the end of the day, the obvious pick was "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," Paul Mazursky's 1986 comedy of modern manners that remains just as funny and incisive today as it was when it came out 34 years ago. In updating playwright Rene Fauchois's 1919 French comedy, famously adapted to the screen in 1932 by Jean Renoir, Mazursky took the story of a well-to-do couple (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler) and the homeless man (Nick Nolte) who turns their lives upside-down after attempting to commit suicide in the pool at their lavish home and used it as a springboard for an alternately cutting and hilarious satire on issues of class, race, gender, sex and the weirdo lifestyle choices that people fall into when they no longer have to worry about mundane concepts like making a living or participating in society. There are any number of hilarious moments on display throughout but arguably the funniest and most successful was the notion of casting Little Richard as the next-door neighbor of Dreyfuss and Midler (whose last name, not insignificantly, is "Whiteman"), a enormously wealthy music producer who nevertheless still sees racism everywhere. In fact, his first appearance inspires some of the biggest laughs--after a false alarm at the Whiteman residence brings out a large police presence, including a helicopter, he storms over to complain about how when he called the cops a couple weeks ago about an attempted break-in, he only rated a single car, presumably because of the color of his skin. He delivers this monologue with a burst of energy that has to be seen to be believed (Dreyfuss looks authentically gobsmacked at what he is witnessing) and brings an authenticity to the material that makes it ring both funny and true. He pops up a few other times throughout the film to effortlessly steal scenes, no matter what else is going on, and even turns up during the climactic party sequence to bust out "Great Gosh a Mighty," a new song that would prove to be the last chart hit in his truly revolutionary career. (iTunes, Amazon Prime)

If you were a regular reader of "Rolling Stone" back in the late Eighties, you will recall that it seemed as if hardly a month would go by without some glancing reference to a movie that John Mellencamp was planning on doing. However, from what could be gleaned from those tidbits, this particular project seemed to be the furthest thing away from the kind of cheesy exploitation movies that Elvis Presley ground out during the Sixties. This film, then known as "Riding the Cage," would apparently not be driven entirely by music, it would, however, boast a screenplay by the great Larry McMurtry and not only would Mellencamp, whose acting experience to that point consisted mostly of music videos and an appearance on "SCTV" as a contemporary version of Buddy Love in an elaborate spoof of "The Nutty Professor," be starring in it, he would be directing it as well. The film, eventually retitled "Falling from Grace," did actually get made but it would seem that when Mellencamp turned it in to Columbia Pictures, the studio had so little faith in it that they dumped it in a handful of theaters with a minimum of advertising before yanking it within a couple of weeks. Based on all of that, coupled with the fact that many of you reading may have never even heard of it before now, you might assume that the film was a dud, one of those unfortunate creative disasters that occurs when someone who is outstanding in one particular artistic discipline means that they are equally brilliant in all of the others. In fact, the film was a surprisingly engrossing drama that was wholly deserving of its grim commercial fate. Mellencamp plays Bud Parks, a music star who, with his wife (Mariel Hemingway) and young daughter in tow, returns to the small Indiana town where he grew up for what is supposed to be a short visit to help celebrate the 80th birthday of his grandfather (Dub Taylor). He is happy enough to reunite with family and old friends, many of whom he is helping to financially support, but there are two reunions that are more emotionally fraught. There is his estranged father Speck (Claude Akins), a successful poultry farmer who is a violent, brutal, chauvinistic and domineering lout who shows no interest in his son's success other than the belief that he deserves a cut of his fortune for having sired him. Then there is PJ (Kay Lenz), the high school sweetheart he left behind who went on to marry Bud's brother and, she confesses, also slept with Speck. This outrages Bud, though not enough to prevent him from rekindling his own affair with her, partly out of feelings for her and partly as part of his long-running competition with his dad. As the three-day visit stretches into weeks, Bud contemplates leaving the music world forever and returning to the small town life and love that he once knew, a development that does not exactly thrill his wife, especially after Speck makes a play for her. Although it was Mellencamp's name that got this film produced, it also probably insured that few would even attempt to take it seriously, which is a shame because if he had just been a new actor-director with a debut indie film to offer, it is quite likely that this might have been more fully appreciated at the time when it came out. As an actor, Mellencamp gives an interesting and convincingly lived-in performance that is notable both for his restraint--most singers-turned-actors tend to overdo things as if they are still playing for the cheap seats--and for his ability to more than hold his own in scenes opposite his more experienced co-stars. As a filmmaker, he finds a plain and unspoken style that is an interesting stylistic match to what he accomplished in his day job and generates fine performances from his entire cast. (Akins, who retired from acting after this role, is especially mesmerizing as the simultaneously terrifying and pathetic Speck) Unfortunately, although he would take on a couple of acting jobs in subsequent years, he would never again direct another film. This is a shame because, based on the evidence supplied by "Falling from Grace," I would have been interested to see what he might have come up with for an encore. (iTunes. Amazon Prime.)

If I were charged with suggesting a possibly unfamiliar filmmaker whose work you could catch up as a way of killing time during this pandemic, I would probably point you in the direction of Alan Rudolph, who (presuming that you do not count a couple of early horror exploitation efforts and Lord knows he doesn't) got his start as a protege of Robert Altman--serving as assistant director on "The Long Goodbye" (1973) and "Nashville" (1975) and co-writing "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" (1976)--before setting off on his own with a series of idiosyncratic and genre-defying films that may not have been especially remunerative from a financial perspective (his biggest hit was "Mortal Thoughts," a 1991 work-for-hire effort that is the most straightforward of all his films and owed its success to the fact that it co-starred Bruce Willis and Demi Moore at the apex of their joint celebrity) but which earned him a small but devoted fanbase. Unfortunately, a good chunk of his filmography is not currently available for streaming and even DVDs and Blu-Rays of his work are increasingly difficult to track down. Nevertheless, some of his films are out there and waiting to be rediscovered--the overtly Altmanesque "Welcome to L.A." (1977), his 1984 breakthrough "Choose Me," the offbeat romantic fantasy "Made in Heaven" (1987) and the powerful Dorothy Parker biopic "Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle" (1994)--can be found and are worth looking up. And yet, while it might not be his best film per se, if I had to name one as my favorite, it would probably be "Love at Large," his delightfully daffy 1990 film noir pastiche whose spell never fails to lure me in whenever I happen to come across it. Set in a present day that feels as if a Forties filter has been put on top of it--lots of jazz clubs and snap-brim fedoras and the like--the film stars Tom Berenger as Harry Dobbs, a hard-bitten but not especially intelligent private eye who seems in more danger of getting roughed up by his overly suspicious girlfriend (Ann Magnuson) than of stumbling over clues. That said, he is hired by a glamorous nightclub singer known as Miss Dolan (Anne Archer) to follow her lover, Rick, a dangerous criminal type. He follows the guy (Ted Levine) and is startled to discover that he is married to two different women (Annette O'Toole and Kate Capshaw) and has secret families with them in different cities. Meanwhile, Harry's girlfriend, assuming he is having an affair with his client, hires her own detective, newbie Stella Wynkowski (Elizabeth Perkins), to catch him cheating on her--after the requisite gruff banter, the two fall in love and decide to work together to try to get to the bottom of the increasingly complicated case. As is the case with most of Rudolph's films, the plot is not the driving force of "Love at Large" (which eventually proves to be the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories in the end)--he is far more interested in bringing together a collection of eclectic and eccentric characters together and watching them bounce off of each other in strange situations filled with dreamy visuals (including moments that delve into pure fantasy), quirky humor and fractured takes on everything from movie cliches to contemporary relationships. That is especially the case here, to the extent that if you aren't sold on its peculiar charms in the first few minutes, you might as well stop right there. If you do last, you may find yourself as charmed as I am with Rudoph's weirdly quotable dialogue ("Will we be glad and dizzy all the time or will we destroy each other?") and super-stylish direction and the performances that effectively find just the right tone for the material so that it is often very funny without ever descending into simple parody. Music fans will also get a kick out of the film as well--besides the jazzy Mark Isham score, the soundtrack makes smart use of Leonard Cohen's "Ain't No Cure For Love," includes two songs from the late, great Warren Zevon (a cover of the standard "You Don't Know What Love Is" and the debut of "Searching for a Heart") and even casts a small but pivotal role with no less of a figure than Neil Young in a turn that definitely needs to be seen to be (dis)believed. (Streampix)

Released in the early summer of 1980 to a combination of confusion and revulsion--even the positive reviews that it received in some quarters made it all seem a bit distasteful--"Carny" quickly disappeared from view and if it is remembered at all today, it tends to be because it was the first major project that musician Robbie Robertson undertook since wrapping up The Band with the "Last Waltz" concert and subsequent film and album tie-ins--he produced the film, co-wrote the story, supervised the soundtrack (bringing in the legendary Alex North to do the score) and, in response to the attention he received after the release of the "Last Waltz" film, even took on a major acting role that put him up against such Oscar-nominated co-stars as Jodie Foster and Gary Busey. He and Busey play Patch and Frankie, two guys working with a traveling carnival touring the South--Patch is the fixer who smooths things out with the local officials in order to keep things running, solves problems involving the performers and even doles out the occasional beatdown when necessary while Frankie has an act where he dresses up as a malevolent clown named The Mighty Bozo and sits above a dunk tank egging on visitors to try to knock him in the water. At one stop, Frankie meets Donna (Foster), an 18-year-old who is just bored enough with her small-town life to accept Frankie's invitation to go on the road with them. This does not set well with Patch, who schemes to find a way to get rid of her--when she starts working as one of the clothed backup dancers in the striptease act, Patch suggests to the carny running that act that she wants to do a full strip, leading to a commotion when she freezes on stage. She relocates to the midway games and proves to be a quick student in fleecing customers, disarming them with flirtatious banter before getting their money. Before long, she winds up in bed with Patch and when Frankie finds out, a tense triangle develops among the three of them. While all this is going on, the carnival runs afoul of a local crime boss (Bill McKinney) and when he gets violent, the carnies band together to get rid of him once and for all using their particular talents against him. To be honest, the story elements of "Carny" are not the most impressive parts of the film--Thomas Baum's screenplay often lurches into melodrama and some of the details regarding the final con against the crime boss are a little too silly to be believed. However, when director Robert Kaylor simply gives us a look at carnival life, primarily the seedy atmosphere that he all but revels in and the details of the myriad ways in which the performers are going about the singular task of separating marks from their money while forming unlikely families on their own that will go to the mat for each other when necessary, he brings an almost documentary-like feel to the proceedings that manages to hold even when the familiar faces come onto the scene. The three leads play off of each other in inspired ways—Robertson broods majestically, Foster convincingly moves from jailbait allure into a more fully-formed adult and Busey splits between being a wild man in the tank and more thoughtful and reserved out if it. The only real problem with watching "Carny" these days is that once you have finished with it, you will find an urge to run off to the nearest carnival for a visit and to try your luck. (iTunes, Amazon Prime)

If you were to ask me to make out a list of my favorite Humphrey Bogart films, I suspect that most of my choices would be familiar to you--titles like (in no particular order) "The Maltese Falcon," "Casablanca," "To Have and Have Not," "The Big Sleep," "Key Largo" and "The African Queen," to name but a few. However, there is one that is perhaps not quite as familiar to the general public but which I would definitely rank right up there as one of my personal favorites. That would be "All Through the Night" (1942), a loopy comedy-thriller that he made shortly after his big breakthrough with the previous year's "The Maltese Falcon" and which saw him already skewering his tough guy image. He plays Gloves Donahue, a one-time tough guy turned gentleman gambler with a pronounced taste for the cheesecake made by local baker Mr. Miller (and God help anyone who tries to slip him a reasonable facsimile) and a mother (Jane Darwell) who always has his ear when she has a feeling about something, no matter how seemingly minor the circumstance. One day, Mr. Miller turns up late with his cheesecake and when he is later found murdered, Mom insists that her son and his cronies (who include such then-unfamiliar faces as William Demarest, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason) investigate the crime, which Gloves is more inclined to do once he meets a mysterious woman (Kaaren Verne) who turns up looking for Miller, only to run off when she hears he is dead. After various twists and turns, Gloves and the guys discover that they have stumbled upon a nest of Nazi spies and fifth columnists (including Conrad Veidt, Judith Anderson and Peter Lorre) who are planning to wreak havoc on a local shipyard unless they can be stopped. Although it does have its share of reasonably tense sequences, the tone of "All Through the Night" is largely comedic and this might help explain why the film never achieved great prominence--although it was produced before the U.S. entered World War II, it was released afterwards and at that point, viewers might have been put off by an essentially lighthearted film involving Nazis. Nowadays, one can look at it more clearly as a deliberate goof and on that level, it proves to be a lot of fun. Bogart, who did not always take to straight comedy, was clearly having a blast with this film and the scene in which he and Demarest converse in vaguely Germanic-sounding gobbledygook in order to confuse the enemy is one of the funniest of his entire career. (Naturally, when producer Hal Wallis saw it, he hated it and demanded that director Vincent Sherman take it out until it ended up going over well in a preview screening.) Though the material fits Bogart like a glove, it is interesting to note that he still was not the first choice despite his growing level of fame--it was first offered to gossip columnist Walter Winchell and then it became yet another project that Bogart received after being rejected by George Raft. Even when the film moves towards propaganda in the final minutes, it does so with a wry tone that fits in with the rest of the proceedings and leaves "All Through the Night" as one of the most weirdly enjoyable titles in the filmography of one of Hollywood's greatest stars. (Turner Classic Movies)

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