A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: August, 2014

“The Green Girl” (2014)

"The Green Girl" poster


It seems as though every generation can lay claim to at least one pop culture figure that dropkicked a whole mess of people into puberty. Jessica Rabbit certainly did the trick when I was growing up, but for those who came of age in the 1960s, an actress named Susan Oliver became the catalyst for countless instantaneous crushes. While her name may not ring any bells, the seductive gyrations she produced as a jade-hued Orion in the original “Star Trek” pilot forever etched themselves into many a grade-schooler’s memories. However, as the new documentary The Green Girl is quick to point out, Oliver led a fascinating life beyond being a fantasy to be played out in living color. At once a feminist, a pilot, an incredibly prolific performer, and so much more, Oliver was her own woman and damned proud of it. Only a select few have been privy to the full extend of her story until now, and though it runs into a few issues whilst telling it, The Green Girl does so in a genuinely heartfelt and humanizing manner.

The woman who would become Susan Oliver was born Charlotte Gercke on February 13th, 1932. Her early years were rough ones, as her parents divorced when she was young, leaving her unable to settle in one place for terribly long. But Miss Gercke remained a fierce and intelligent young woman, graduating high school years ahead of schedule and even pondering a life in a convent before she chose acting as her destiny. Adopting the stage name of “Susan Oliver,” she quickly amassed an enviable amount of television credits, appearing in everything from “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide” to “The Love Boat” and, of course, “Star Trek.” But her ambitions didn’t stop here, as she also proceeded to wage a battle for more respect for all women in the entertainment industry and even conquered her fear of flying by becoming an accomplished aviatrix. Unfortunately, the world at the time didn’t know what to do with a strong, singular personality like Susan, who found her attempts to transition from the small screen to the silver screen and from acting to directing thwarted by those who saw her only as a guest star of the week.

At first, I was a little scared that The Green Girl‘s eagerness to spread the word about a subject who never got her due would outweigh its ability to do so with finesse. I haven’t a thing against the flick for being of homegrown origin, no problem with its deluge of clips not being of the most pristine quality or its interviews conducted in a chiefly static fashion. When you’re focusing on a woman who led a life as full as Susan did, form is a secondary concern, but given how sizable her list of feats is, it’s strange that The Green Girl feel the need to pad out its running time. The movie comes across a mighty stumbling block near the beginning, an almost half-hour chunk during which talking heads simply go on about stuff in which Susan has appeared. There’s some discussion about her versatility, how easily she could assume role after radically-different role, but it really feels like people are just reciting her IMDB page. Not only did this portion of the film eat up a chunk of time without making much of a point, it came dangerously close to giving the entire project a frivolous impression, inciting feelings of dread that all we’d be seeing was a lot of gushing about a random cult fixture without getting to know her as a person.

What a relief, then, that this is not the picture that The Green Girl ultimately becomes. Once it moves beyond the career retrospective, the film turns into an affectionate celebration of Susan Oliver and her indomitable spirit. Despite the flick’s title and number of “Star Trek” historians it interviews, Susan’s days as an alien are but a tiny fraction of the achievements chronicled here. Friends and family recount an indescribably kind soul who could simultaneously be tough as nails, who rarely said no to a job and gave every part that came her way her all. That Susan’s hard work and determination to be taken seriously as a director — an area in which women were practically never allowed to flourish and rarely are nowadays — were awarded with stonewalling and ridicule provides a heart-breaking final chapter to her life, which was tragically cut short when she passed away from lung cancer at age 58. But although the film doesn’t shy away from the challenges and dark moments Susan faced, it doesn’t dwell on her victimhood, concentrating on how much she fought till the bitter end. Through archive footage of the woman herself and anecdotes shared by those closest to her, a loving portrait is pieced together, paying proper tribute to someone the public at large knew only as that lady who popped up on TV all the time.

After braving the clip show portion of the proceedings, you’ll find The Green Girl to be every bit as respectful and admiring as it sets out to be. It ignores the urge to dedicate an inordinate amount of time to discussing the one appearance for which Susan has attained eternal cult fandom, having had the foresight to pick a compelling subject who did lots of other cool stuff in her day. The Green Girl would probably have been better serviced were a third of its running time shaved off, but it still whips up an engaging biography centered around one of the last people you’d ever expect.

“Harlem Nights” (1989)

"Harlem Nights" poster


I never knew a time when Eddie Murphy was the guy. When I was old enough to finally see the hard-edged blockbusters that first made him famous, he’d long since turned his career in a more family-friendly direction and become a terribly inconsistent box office draw. But looking back on Murphy’s work in the ’80s, the guy seemed downright untouchable. Just take 1989’s Harlem Nights, a passion project that the “SNL” veteran not only starred in but wrote, directed, and executive produced, as well. It was just a few years earlier that Prince’s period vanity vehicle Under the Cherry Moon crashed and burned, yet so strong was the public’s appetite for Murphy, audiences came running when he made one of his own. Harlem Nights conquered some fairly bad press to make a good chunk of change for itself, but is the movie worth anything? Well, while I’ve seen actors land more auspicious directing debuts, Murphy at least had enough sense to realize that if he was going to make a mess, he was going to make it an interesting mess.

The time is 1938. The place is Harlem, a town teeming with the finest after-hours clubs and gambling establishments in the Big Apple. It’s here that Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor) rose from holding crap games in dirty back rooms to running his own swanky joint. But as it turns out, Ray’s place has become too lucrative for its own good, as big-time gangster Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner) sees it as a threat to his turf and makes his intentions on taking over loud and clear. Quick (Murphy), Ray’s right-hand man and adopted son, wants the outfit to stand its ground, but his mentor favors packing up and moving out…though not without sending a message first. Despite Bugsy having enough manpower and then some to steamroll his way into controlling the Harlem hot spot, Quick and company are cooking up one final scheme, one that will show New York’s nastiest lowlifes that they’re not a force to be trifled with.

Those afraid that the period setting of Harlem Nights might have cleansed Murphy’s notorious potty mouth need not sweat it. The flick’s no Raw, but the blue humor is in full force here, with many of the punchlines simply being one character dropping an epic curse bomb of some kind upon another. Moments like these speak directly to our inner five-year-olds and do get their fair share of laughs (I could’ve had two hours of Redd Foxx’s cranky craps dealer telling people to kiss his ass, and I’d have been satisfied), although they cause the story to flirt with anachronism just as often. On one hand, it’s relieving to see the cast of Harlem Nights resisting the urge to let loose with a cartoonish cacophony of clichéd mobster voices and the like (there isn’t a “N’yeah, see?” to be heard). But for the most part, these actors rehash their standard screen personas of the time, only with more tommy guns and spiffier wardrobes. Still, while the language makes for a wonky fit, the film’s gorgeous production design does an incredible job of bringing ’30s Harlem to life. The sets, the cars, the costumes — everything looks amazing, without an overblown visual element in sight. And if that weren’t enough to immerse viewers, the soundtrack packs in some great jazz favorites and a score by Herbie Hancock to set the mood even more like a champ.

Inconsistency tends to haunt Harlem Nights, right down to its story and overall tone. The general premise isn’t all that different from something like The Sting, what with its blend of lighthearted comic capers and dramatic plot twists, as well as the fact that, even though our protagonists are all engaged in illegal enterprises, they’re undeniably the good guys. When it focuses on bringing the pieces of the big con together, Harlem Nights can be an entertaining ride, although a number distractions emerge along the way that nearly derail the journey. From Stan Shaw as a stuttering fighter to Arsenio Hall as a gangster who thinks Quick killed his brother, the movie dedicates an awful lot of screen time to kooky bit characters who barely serve the story and, worst of all, simply aren’t very funny. The flick’s serious side has more successfully intriguing subplots to offer (including Danny Aiello’s effective turn as a scummy cop), but it too is plagued with a good deal of heedless padding all its own. As for the main cast, Murphy is surprisingly restrained as Quick (who never struck me as hotheaded as the characters keep saying he is), and as previously mentioned, Redd Foxx is a straight-up hoot. But the real treasure of the film is Pryor, coming across as quiet, wise, affable, funny, and all the other traits that are essential for a film to get you to root for the criminal figures at its center.

Back in the day, Harlem Nights had a bad reputation that wasn’t entirely earned. Seeing as how much talent was involved, I’m sure quite a few expectations weren’t met, but I wouldn’t deem it worthy of either the Razzie nods or old-fashioned terrible press with which it was met. Though Harlem Nights can be a little more preoccupied with upping the swear count than with trimming the script, it’s not any worse off than many of the vintage crime pictures that inspired it.

“The Protector 2” (2013)

"The Protector 2" poster


Like Stephen Chow, Tony Jaa once seemed poised on the brink of action cinema legend. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior truly lived up to its badass reputation, signaling the arrival of a martial artist who would take the daring choreography popularized by Jackie Chan to a much grittier level. But after that film’s two follow-ups met with mixed receptions, Jaa fell off the radar for a bit, having resurfaced only recently. Part of the man’s comeback tour is The Protector 2, the sequel to a 2005 film that almost made up for its faults with a handful of incredible fight scenes. But there’s nothing awe-inspiring about this beast, which embellishes itself with unbelievably amateurish effects that soften the blow of some otherwise solid stunt work in a huge way. With any edges having been almost totally sanded off, The Protector 2 looks more like a cheap knock-off of a property that once held promise than a successor to the legacy.

After the first movie’s events, you’d think that people would’ve realized that rural villager Kham (Jaa) and his elephant Khon just want to be left alone. But as with Liam Neeson and his family, baddies can’t help but barge into their peaceful lives and raise a ruckus. That’s right, another ‘phant-napping has taken place, with Kham tearing off after the perpetrators in hot pursuit. This time, however, the situation is a tad more complicated, as Kham’s search for his ten-ton amigo leads him directly into a trap that brands him the top suspect in a businessman’s murder. Little does our hero know that he’s being manipulated by L.C. (RZA), a shadowy figure who keeps a team of the world’s finest fighters at his beck and call. The fiend has something sinister in store for both Kham and his pachyderm pal, forcing our guy to strike back with a barrage of beatings as unrelenting as his attitude.

For a vehicle for a star whose earliest pictures boasted their realism, The Protector 2 can’t even sell me on Tony Jaa being in the same rooms it claims he’s in. The special effects here aren’t merely bad; they’re mystifyingly inept, unable to support the mildest hint of illusion. Sure, the trickery in kung-fu flicks of yore could look pretty rough, but even with wires present, you could still tell some dudes were actually fighting each other. However, The Protector 2 packs so much godawful green-screening up its sleeve, you wonder why the production crew even bothered with the more fantastic stunts, since it’d be cheaper to just scrap them completely. It’s not as if sequences like Kham being chased down by a motocross gang or clobbering thugs in a room entirely on fire couldn’t have been scaled down and still looked cool, or that Jaa hadn’t already displayed physical chops so impressive, no computer-assisted flourishes were required. But time and again (and often in the middle of a beatdown that’s just getting good, at that), the horrid effects read their ugly heads, taking your mind off of the action and robbing it of its punch (no pun intended…okay, maybe a little).

I’d say that The Protector 2‘s story was a victim of these forces as well, but this plot screws the pooch on its own accord. It’s actually pretty amusing that it uses more or less the same hook as the first flick (what else would the sequel to a movie best known for being about a stolen elephant revolve around than another damn stolen elephant?), but in upping the stakes and building upon the premise, things get really confusing, really fast. The reason why L.C. covets Khon is sensible enough, but as for what the guy actually does for a living, why he maintains what’s basically a martial arts harem, and why he tries to kill Kham immediately after recruiting him for said menagerie? That’s anyone’s guess. All I know is that the script takes all this, adds some political intrigue, sprinkles in a pair of revenge-seeking sisters, and uses the ensuing narrative goop to bury its actors’ talents. At least the cast tries as hard as they can to give you something worth watching, as Jaa proves he’s still in prime posterior-pounding form, and — in arguably his most formidable role yet — RZA looking like he could actually take on the Thai titan in a brawl.

There are those who’ll be more forgiving towards The Protector 2 than I am, and in all fairness, it’s not an abject failure. Whenever the filmmakers can wrench the computer’s grubby paws away from the action, the fights can be mighty intense, captured in a straight-laced light that rejects the goofiness favored by flicks like This Girl Is Badass. But that part of me that’s still biding my time until the real heir to the Ong-Bak throne arrives was left unimpressed by The Protector 2, the sort of misguided follow-up that one laughs at rather than with.

“I Love You Again” (1940)

"I Love You Again" poster


Myrna Loy and William Powell really could do it all. Between the two, they assumed the roles of everything from suburbanites and temptresses to playboys and military men, parts each one inhabited convincingly while seemingly exhibiting the same personas every time. But together, Loy and Powell were all but unstoppable, forming one of the sharpest and most playful screen duos of their time. Of course, they’re best remembered for the Thin Man pictures, although they shared a number of collaborations outside of the franchise, including 1940’s I Love You Again. In lesser hands, this might have turned out to be a throwaway farce, but as is, it’s…well, it’s still a throwaway farce. But while I Love You Again is unabashed froth from beginning to end, its leads elevate the material to a much more exciting level than it could’ve been content staying at, as their chemistry goes a long way towards helping a humdrum plot spring to life.

Larry Wilson (Powell) is more stuffy than the poor animals on which he practices his taxidermy. He’s a real No-Fun Freddy, a cheapskate extraordinaire who’s never known a moment’s excitement in his life…or so he imagines. During a cruise, Larry meets an accident and gets conked on the head, triggering memories of a previous life he’d forgotten all about. In actuality, our boy is George Carey, a con artist left for dead after a double-cross. As soon as he sees how much dough “Larry” and his penny-pinching ways have netted him, George is back to his old tricks and sets out to fib his way to a fortune. There’s just one catch: Larry’s wife, Kay (Loy), wants a divorce, and such a scandal would blow the whole con to bits. But even more trouble arises when George starts to fall in love with Kay for real — a development almost as unexpected as Kay succumbing to the charms of her “husband” and rediscovering her own feelings for him.

I Love You Again is the sort of vehicle that just about every star of its era was cast in sooner or later. With some minor tweaking, one can easily imagine this being a showcase for Fred & Ginger or, if it were so dramatically inclined, Bogie & Bacall. Admittedly, I’m not sure I Love You Again would’ve been that drastically different had some other pair of popular performers at the time been featured instead, but the headliners it did seek out certainly aren’t hurting anything. Powell and Loy bring a certain element of class to the project, one that allows them to keep the outrageous premise relatively reined in. One sees the wave of improbable hijinks cresting often throughout the picture, but these two manage to tame it and produce the bare minimum of mugging. Barring some obligatory moments where the gimmick wears thin (where George’s obvious lack of knowledge about Larry’s world should’ve gotten him in deep trouble), the craziness remains fairly plausible, which is no easy task when amnesia ranks right up there with hypnosis as plot devices that yours truly can barely stomach.

Although it’s true that just about anyone could’ve been the leads in I Love You Again, these personalities truly are perfect fits for Loy and Powell. The latter can play a lovable scoundrel with the best of them, while the former excels as self-assured heroines with swoony sides. We don’t see much of Powell as a pre-head bonk Larry, but he gives a treat of a performance as George regardless, with half the fun coming from watching him trying to talk his way out of a sticky situation. In the meantime, Loy takes a thanklessly prototypical wife role and gives it a much-needed boost of personality. Kay is one tough cookie who doesn’t fall for George’s schmoozing right away, but when she starts inevitably warming up to the lug, it’s Loy’s tenderness that helps you buy it. These two kids receive some support in the form of Frank McHugh as one of George’s cohorts and Edmund Lowe as a swindler who wants in on the big con, but they tend to get drowned out by the stars’ rapport. Also, the movie does breeze by almost too quickly at times, glossing over such details as what the central scheme is all about and why certain characters seem to forgive acts of towering deception so easily.

I Love You Again doesn’t possess the cleverest witticisms or the most knee-slapping set pieces, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a charmer anyway. What makes one comedy an uninspired gag parade and another an amusing treat all comes down to execution, and in terms of timing, one-liners, and actors with a real grasp of the material, this one made out like a bandit. Movies like I Love You Again are a dime a dozen, but not all of them are as much of a pleasure to watch as this.