Monday, February 24, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008)

No, we're not reeling back very far this week. The fifth installment of the Indiana Jones chronicle was supposed to come out in 2020, but has been pushed back to the following year. That gives us a chance to look back on the mightily controversial previous one, 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

It seems like it's been forever since that film, but if the schedule holds it will have only been 13 years since the last Indy movie, whereas it was 19 years between 1989's "The Last Crusade" and "Skull."

This seems like a good time to ruminate on the passage of time in film franchises and the aging process of actors.

There were a whole bunch of old jokes about the movie and in the movie, as star Harrison Ford was in his mid-60s when "Skull" was made. (The original trilogy roughly covered his 40s.) Pop culture was inundated with quips about him being the same age as Sean Connery was when he played Indiana Jones' doddering old dad in "Crusade."

In point of fact: Ford was several years older than Connery was, since in actuality the two actors are merely 12 years apart in age.

Ford will be 78 or 79 as they wrap up shooting of the sixth Indy movie, whose title is still a secret. Since all the movies have roughly tracked with the actor's actual age at the time they were made, it would seem the new one will be set in the 1970s.

Thanks to "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," the underrated TV series that ran from 1989 to 1993 (plus a few made-for-TV movies that were later re-edited into more serial episodes), the character's birth year is firmly established as 1899. Easy for me to remember, as it's also my paternal grandfather's.

George Hall played "Old Indy," the contemporaneous "host" of the TV show, who then would have been in his 90s. Notably, by then Indy had lost his right eye and wore a patch beneath wire-rim glasses. I'll be interested to see if this injury is explained in the new movie, sort of the way Ford's real-life chin scar was added into "The Last Crusade."

Astounding fact: When he stars in the next movie Ford will be older than Hall was when he played Old Indy.

Seeing "Skull" for the first time in many years, I was struck how frail Ford already appears to be in the action scenes. He actually moves around pretty well, including some jumps and swings he apparently executed himself. He even wriggles feet-first through a small opening between the cargo area of a truck and its cabin, looking relatively spry.

No, it's the punches where this Indy pulls his.

Old-school stunts have been a calling card of the Indiana Jones series, including plenty of fistfights. Punches are always accompanied by a signature sound effect that sounds more like a whiplash than the collision of flesh and bone.

Here we get the same aural crack while Ford's punching arms appear to be moving in slow motion. Indy's enemies -- the Russians this time -- still fly around the screen like they've been struck by a charging bull. The result is the fight scenes seem comically fake.

In general Indy subcontracts most of the heavy fighting to the greaser teenage character, Mutt Williams, in what is seen as Shia LaBeouf's breakout into adult roles. Of course (half-hearted spoiler warning here), about halfway through the movie it's revealed that Mutt is the son of Indy and his long-lost (or mislaid) lady love, Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen, eternally radiant).

It's Mutt who takes on Irina Spalko, the sword-carrying scientist/kook played by Cate Blanchett in a torrid Ukranian accent that's just begging for a "moose and squirrel" reference. They duel with blades while each standing in the back of vehicles speeding through the Amazonian jungle in one of the film's signature scenes.

Spalko and Indy never exchange more than a few harsh words. Oh, I think she slaps him once.

Mutt first appears wearing EXACTLY the same outfit Marlon Brando did in "The Wild One," right down to the motorcycle and skewed riding cap. Once he and Indy start talking and he references his mother, I think most people guessed at his progeny. When Marian turns up as his mom, the cat's out of the bag and we're just waiting for the reveal to arrive. Mutt and Indy look nothing alike though there is a resemblance to Marian.

From this point on the movie (intentionally) becomes a hammy family sitcom, as the three exchange quips -- "Honey," "Daddy-O," "Junior" -- while fighting the rooskies and, in Mutt's case, literally swinging with the monkeys.

Ford's Indy has definitely mellowed at this point. He's not as excitable or egotistic. I enjoyed the part where they get caught in quicksand and Indy begins patiently explaining the difference between quicksand and a dry sandpit, emphasizing the difference in viscosity.

He's more pedantic professor than grim grave-robber these days.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is soon after meeting Mutt, when Indy tosses a line about having known "a lot of Marys" in his lifetime, and the young man leaps from the table, ready to fight a perceived insult of his mother. The Indiana Jones from "Raiders" or "Temple of Doom" would've quickly taken up the challenge, warranted or no.

Instead, he holds his place, looking directly but softly into the younger man's eyes. "You don't have to get sore all the time to prove how tough you are. Sit down. Please, sit down."

Pat Roach, the hulking wrestler who was Indy's punch-pal in the first three movies, had died in 2004 so Igor Jijikine was recruited to play the muscleman antagonist in this movie. He and Indy actually exchange a few good hits before the Russian is eaten alive by giant Amazonian ants. The CGI in this scene was attacked as hoky, but I think it still looks pretty good and certainly was fine compared to contemporary films.

With regard to the two biggest knocks against KotCS:

Yes, the "nuke the fridge" bit is ridiculous. Even if the blast didn't kill him the impact from traveling a few miles like being shot from a cannon would've. But plausibility has not been a hallmark of Indiana Jones movies.

I mean, in "Temple of Doom" an evil shaman reached into a dude's chest and pulled his heart out. Or take the scene where they're flying along in a mine cart, jump across a huge chasm and land exactly on the skinny rail lines on the opposite side.

Gimme the algorithms on that actually happening, perfesser.

On the space aliens revelation, I'm actually 100% fine with that. The film is set in the late 1950s, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas explicitly said at the outset they wanted to do a science fiction  Indiana Jones flick. I mean, we see the incredibly elongated skull about halfway through the movie -- did you think thiswas going to end anywhere other than (not so) little spacemen?

Again, the first movies involved 1) the Lost Ark of the Covenant, 2) Evil demon magic, and 3) the actual frickin' Holy Grail. To those who loudly pshawed at lead fridges and aliens, I pshaw right back.

I'm genuinely curious what the forthcoming -- and, I've got to think, last -- Indiana Jones movie will hold. I can't imagine they'll try to present Indy as still being capable of even the scaled-down feats of KotCS. We've already heard Mutt won't be back, so is Indy going to recruit another stand-in for the boldest stunts?

They're also not going to kill him off, not without upsetting the established canon that has Indy living until at least the 1990s. There was a lot of talk a few years back about rebooting the franchise with Chris Pratt or someone else starring. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative, and perhaps even provided the final push needed for a fifth one starring Ford to get made.

Ford has joked about wanting to kill off all of his iconic characters, and he finally succeeded with two of them, Han Solo and Rick Deckard, just within the past few years. Curiously, he has never expressed similar thoughts about Indiana Jones, and in fact has been quite vocal about wanting to bring him back.

Indy's already older than his dad, so to speak, and is even senior to the eldest version of the character ever depicted. Whither Dr. Jones? Only time can tell, and how much can truly be left?

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Video review: "Knives Out"

"Knives Out" is a supremely entertaining movie, though it's not hard to discern what it's all about: poking fun at the conventions of the Agatha Christie-style murder/mystery while wantonly indulging in every single trope inherent to the drama.

It ended up earning writer/director Rian Johnson, late of the much-maligned "The Last Jedi" entry in the Star Wars saga, an Academy Award for his original screenplay. It is indeed an intricate instrument of misdirection and humor, pointing the audience this way and yanking them that way, while forcing us to look here when we should be looking there.

It's a fun movie with a "big twist" that you know is coming, though still devilishly difficult to guess. It's the sort of flick you walk out of theater overhearing somebody loudly proclaim, "I saw it coming all along!", and know he's a dirty liar.

It's the prototypical "mansion with a dead guy and a bunch of suspects" setup. The uber-wealthy Thrombey clan has just encountered the death of patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer), a famous mystery novelist, under suspicious circumstances. It appears he took his own life, but is this really true?

 Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is the Southern-fried private investigator on the case. Certainly there is not shortage of people with sufficient motive to see Harlan dead. This includes:
  • Walt (Michael Shannon), who oversees his dad's publishing company and has tried for years to get him to sell his work for movies and whatnot
  • Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), the hard-bitten daughter who insists she's an independent success but is burdened with a lout husband, Richard (Don Johnson) and a peculiar son with Nazi-ish tendencies.
  • Joni (Toni Collette), the New Age-y daughter-in-law who puts off an aura of self-confidence but is always hard up for cash
  • Hugh (Chris Evans), the cad playboy grandson who recently had a loud falling out with Harlan, and seems to always be disappearing and reappearing at opportune moments
Other characters floating around the story are the police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) who outsources most of the detecting to Blanc; Katherine Langford as one of the nicer grandchildren; and Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan's caretaker who was much closer to him than any of his own children.

Far be it from me to give anything away. All I will say is that "Knives Out" is that rare movie that seems to dare the audience to guess where it's going, but always manages to stay a few steps ahead.

I wouldn't call this one of the best movies of 2019, as some have. In the end it's a fun, clever movie that exists to be fun and clever. Is that really such a bad thing?

Video extras are quite comprehensive. Johnson provides a feature-length commentary track along with his director of photography, Steve Yedlin, and actor Noah Segan, who has a rather small part. Johnson also provides his own "In-Theatre" commentary and stars in his own featurette, "Planning the Perfect Murder."

Additionally there are two deleted scenes with commentary, a Q&A with director and cast, some marketing photos and "Meet the Thrombeys" viral ads, and "Making a Murder," an eight-part making-of documentary.



Friday, February 21, 2020

Review: "The Call of the Wild"

No, the CGI dog isn’t that great. Is it terrible? It certainly didn’t play well in the trailers for “The Call of the Wild.” And people have enjoyed dunking on the movie for the weird dynamic of using a human actor in green spandex to act out the part of a giant canine, which animators then digitally painted over.

But you know what? It actually doesn’t matter that much. The CGI may be a bit jarring at first next to a bunch of humans, but by 10 minutes in it didn’t bother me anymore. It’s probably not much worse than the critters in “The Lion King” from last year, the difference being there were no humans to foul up the juxtaposition.

I went into “The Call of the Wild” not expecting much. Honestly, I only went because my boys saw the trailer during “Sonic the Hedgehog” and insisted they wanted to see it. Pick them up from school, a little Chick fil-A, a boys’ night out and momma gets some well-earned solo time.

So I was surprised to find myself increasingly engaged in the story of Buck, the spoiled dog who is shipped off to Alaska for a life of adventure and peril in Jack London’s iconic novel. By the time he’s dog-napped from a comfortable existence as the pet of a wealthy judge and winds up part of a dog sled team, the animation issue had already slid away.

As good as the first half is, the second is pretty spectacular. Harrison Ford only shows up a couple of times during the early going, and in fact at first I was worried he was only going to be a bit player.
But his character, John Thornton, and Buck reunite around the 40-minute mark and the rest of the way it’s all about their relationship.

This is truly one of Ford’s most sensitive and soulful performances. I know that may sound strange for a dog movie, but it is so. There’s no steely hint of the action hero he was for so many decades, or the rapscallion charm of Indy or Han. It’s a truly vulnerable performance you can’t get out of a younger actor.

His John Thornton is a man steeped in regret, who has come to Alaska to make one last attempt at finding meaning in a life that has fallen into shambles. His son, who always dreamed of going on an adventure in the hinterlands, passed away and it eventually doomed his marriage. He spends his days in a tent on a hill outside town, drinking and stewing.

It is not an exaggeration to say that John probably wouldn’t have lived much longer without meeting Buck.

They leave the prospecting village, where Buck had been part of the mail delivery team, and go off for that adventure. It’s not too difficult to see that John is substituting the dog for the son he lost. But it gives him purpose and drive again.

As you may remember from childhood readings, Buck falls in with a pack of timber wolves, and spends more and more of his time away from John. The man is old and wise enough not to resent this, seeing it less as a fraying of bonds as the natural evolution of a pup who must eventually leave one family and start one of his own.

The movie, directed by Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”) from a screenplay by Michael Green, follows the first part of the novel fairly well but departs in significant ways in the second. There are no other prospector partners for John, no attacks and reprisals on savage Indians (with not-terribly-concealed racial animus).

The search for gold is wholly dispensed with as a worthy endeavor; John and Buck travel to the edge of the world and find the mythical “lost cabin” that supposedly marks the way to a fortune of gold, and in fact they quickly find large nuggets of the stuff in the nearby river. But John uses it as pieces on a chess board or stuffs it into his pockets like lost buttons.

Dan Stevens plays Hal, the villain of the piece who does covet gold for its own end. If there’s a quibble to be had with the movie, it’s the sneering cartoonishness of this character, as he’s written and played. John and Buck encounter him early in the story, and Hal forms a hatred for them that seems far out of proportion to any offense they gave.

They may as well have named him Snidely and given him extravagant mustachios to twirl.

But, like the animation that brings Buck to life, this weakness quickly recedes in importance. The heart and soul of this movie is the bond between man and dog, and how two who are lost find a semblance of home in each other’s companionship.

There’s a wonderful stillness to this movie that we don’t see much at the cinema anymore. I reveled in scenes of Buck and John just encountering a beautiful vista, and simply stopping for a moment to take it all in. At 100 minutes, this is the rare movie that neither tarries nor feels like it’s in too much of a hurry.

I went to “The Call of the Wild” to kill time, and came away genuinely moved, and rejuvenated.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Video review: "Jojo Rabbit"

I’ve been reading anonymous testimonials from Oscar voters who said they wouldn’t even watch “Jojo Rabbit” because they found the premise offensive. With the proviso that they should do their job, it is a tough subject matter, especially when you just blurt it out:

In Nazi Germany, a young boy struggles to make his way after his father goes missing in the war, substituting in his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler.

Yeah, I know. Doesn’t exactly sound like the setup for a great comedy, does it?

Give “Jojo” a try, because it’s a terrific movie with wonderful performances -- including Scarlett Johansson as the mother, who deservedly got an Oscar nomination out of it.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) struggles to fit in with the other kids in the Hitler Youth club. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson play hilariously inept/cynical instructors putting the kids through the motions. Jojo gets blown up by a hand grenade during training, suffering scars to his face that make him even more self-conscious.

His only real solace is talking to Hitler, played by Taika Waititi, who also wrote and directed the film. Hitler is sympathetic and helpful, but there’s also a clear note of manipulation to their interactions.

Things grow more complicated when Jojo discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a slightly older Jewish girl, living in a hidden space in their house. He’s old enough to realize this means his mom, Rosie, is hiding her there and that if he turned the girl in his family would be broken up. So they slowly start to interact, with the start of a friendship and maybe even an adolescent romance growingt there.

Yes, “Jojo Rabbit” has a little bit of a “quirky for quirky’s sake” vibe to it. But it’s weirdly entertaining, and despite the jokes we find ourselves growing quite attached to these characters.

It may seem strange to feel something for German Nazis, but this is a dark comedy that finds a little bit of humanity in everyone. 

Bonus features include outtakes, three deleted sense, a feature-length commentary track by Waititi and a making-of documentary, “Inside Jojo.”



Thursday, February 13, 2020

Review: "The Photograph"

I've been a fan of LaKeith Stanfield since I saw him in his first movie, "Short Term 12." I think he's one of the finest young actors working in film today, though he's mostly had small parts in big films or big parts in small films. Most people would probably recognize him as the crazy neighbor in "Get Out."

I'm less familiar with Issa Rae, other than I thought she was about the only good thing going on in last year's execrable "Little." She has natural screen presence and solid comedic timing.

So I was excited to see them together in a romantic drama, "The Photograph." It's a fairly standard new-love sort of story, in which two wounded people meet, fall in love and then contend with challenges to their young relationship.

But writer/director Stella Meghie lends the story a certain kind of slow-burn soulfulness. We spend a lot of time in extreme close-up shots with this couple, almost like we're being enveloped in their embrace.

He plays Michael Block, a writer for the fictional Republic magazine. It's one of those quasi-intellectual New York publications where reporters apparently work on a single story for a couple of months. He recently broke up with his girlfriend, Tessa (never seen), and is contemplating a move to work for the Associated Press in London.

She is Mae, the daughter of a semi-famous photographer, Christina Eames, who has just died. She's the assistant curator for a museum in Queens that apparently pays well enough for her to afford a lavish, sprawling penthouse apartment in the Big Apple.

Mae's relationship with her mom was strained by her dedication to work, and is making her way through a long letter her mother left for her -- with another one she's supposed to give to her father.

They connect through the way every journalist finds love in the movies: by sleeping with a source. While interviewing a fisherman in New Orleans, Isaac (Rob Morgan), Michael comes across photographs by Christina, is intrigued by them and looks up Mae, who is organizing an exhibit of her mother's work.

He asks her out, and things go from there -- including a rendezvous in Louisiana that kicks things into another gear.

(Seriously, Hollywood: having sex with your sources is kind of a big no-no in journalism. Like, end-your-career kinda stuff.)

The story slips back and forth in time, as we witness the new romance begin to bloom and watch as an old one between Isaac and Christina founders. They are played in the flashback sequences by Y'lan Noel and Chante Adams, respectively, and their onscreen chemistry is just electric.

Lil Rel Howery plays Kyle, Michael's older brother, who offers ribbing advice and an example (cautionary tale?) of stable family life. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is Andy, a younger colleague of Michael's who looks up to him, and Chelsea Peretti plays Sara, their passive-aggressive boss.

Mae and Michael are both in the process of discovering things about themselves, and about each other. Mae wonders if she will have the same trouble maintaining deep relationships her mom did. Michael questions if he's capable of staying in one place and sinking down roots.

Some may find it an odd comparison, but tonally this movie reminded me a lot of "The Notebook," and not just because of the Southern setting. It's a movie about the joy of falling in love but also leavened with a sense of regret and loss. We hope good things will happen to these people, knowing that hearts break at least as often as they leap.

At the center is Stanfield and Rae. They're both beautiful in an offbeat sort of way, him with his slouching charm and her with a smile that could easily turn into a frown or a boisterous laugh. We enjoy just sitting back and watching them go.

"The Photograph" isn't the fastest-paced romance, but sometimes it pays to slow down and just bask in the moment.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Oscars postmortem 2020

It was a historic night at the Oscars, though not a particularly great one if you think the best films should prevail. C'est la vie.

"Parasite" became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, and also the first Cannes Palme d'Or winner to also take the Academy Award in 65 years, the last one being "Marty."

It's pretty rare for my favorite movie to win Best Picture, so I'm used to disappointment. I liked "Parasite" but it didn't make my top 10 or even my list of also-rans. I found it intellectually interesting but not very emotionally engaging. None of the characters really stood out to me.

Oddly, the maid is the only person I found myself somewhat identifying with. It seemed like it borrowed too obviously from other movies, particularly "Shoplifters" and Kurosawa's "High and Low," and the Tarantino-esque bloodletting ending pretty well lost me.

Lack of competition

Still, in an overall weak year for films there wasn't really a strong frontrunner to oppose it. Even though "1917" won most of the key preliminary awards, including the usually predictive Director's Guild prize, I think the groundswell of support for picking a foreign film swept people up.

I hear a lot of people calling for this to be the start of a trend, with more foreign films vying in categories beyond the International Feature. "Cinema is the global language," yada yada.

Honestly, I hope not. Aside from truly exceptional films from abroad, the Academy Awards have always explicitly been part and parcel of the Hollywood industry.

As I've said before, whenever people complain about foreign films not winning more Oscars, I ask them to remind of all the American films that won a slew of prizes at the Korean/Spanish/Swedish/whatever film awards. There's nothing wrong with being an institution primarily aimed at celebrating work from a particular country or language.

Nobody complains when the BAFTAs always go to British movies.

(Notably, Cannes and many other film festivals that give out coveted awards are explicitly international by design.)

I've noticed more and more foreign films creeping into the short film, documentary and animated categories in recent years, to the point of dominating them. Only one out of five documentary features and live action shorts were set in America, and as it turned out they both won.

I guess nativism is fine for those "smaller" categories.

I think "1917" was hurt by not having any acting nominations. Actors make up the largest bloc of Academy voters, and they love movies with meaty parts. Casting a couple of unknowns who were as much stuntmen as thespians undoubtedly diminished its chances, even with a few name actors in bit parts.

Playing footsie with QT

So it fell to "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" to take up the slack, and I think in the end people recognized it as a wonderful-looking movie with some nice performances and a haphazard train wreck of a script. But I lost track of how many times Quentin Tarantino drew praise from the stage, even by people who weren't in his movie.

It's the oldest story in the world: young, rebellious upstart becomes part of the institution. Strange the way he's beloved in the #MeToo age, given the fetishistic way he divides up women's bodies into subjects for his leering gaze. In an age focused on giving women their voices, here's a guy who literally resurrected a starlet so he could render her wordless.

Bong Joon Ho paid homage to both Tarantino and Scorsese in his acceptance speech, and then seemed to realize he couldn't leave out the other two guys, so he slipped in some half-hearted praise.

It was definitely a spread-the-love around night, with the four for "Parasite" leading the parade. All four favorites in the acting categories won, which is a little boring. Usually when you go into the ceremony with four locks, it means there's going to be one upset.

My money was on Renee Zellweger, who ended up winning for "Judy," a perfectly fine but not great movie. That's actually a not uncommon occurrence for someone to win Best Actor or Actress without their film receiving any other nominations.

I honestly don't pay much attention to the speeches -- that's when I'm tweeting out my responses to the award -- though I couldn't help zero on Joaquin Phoenix's utterly kooky and cryptic callout for... not stealing baby cows' milk, or something. It's not too often you hear an Oscar speech that talks about artificial insemination.

Look, dude, eat what you want and I'll do the same.

The utterly placid "Toy Story 4" won animated feature, thus securing this as the Disney/Pixar award even when they produce substandard fare. Thus it goes that the "How to Train Your Dragon" saga comes to a close with zero Oscar wins, losing to a Mouse House movie every time. How depressing.

In terms of predictions scorecard, I was right on 20 out of 24, which is pretty good for me. I think my best ever was 21. I missed on musical score, best picture, best director and sound editing. I actually got all the short film categories right, which is usually where I run astray.

So we pull the shroud over 2019, a slightly subpar movie year imho. Many of my favorites didn't even rate nominations, which isn't all that unusual. In the scramble to find foreign films to honor, a lot of terrific homegrown ones like "Harriet," "Late Night" and "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" were overlooked.

Reeling Backward: "The Longest Yard" (1974)

"The Longest Yard" became an iconic sports comedy without being especially funny or having particularly good gridiron action. It was remade several times around the globe, including a 2005 version starring Adam Sandler in which Burt Reynolds switched from the lead in the original to the grizzled old coach.

I haven't seen the newer one, and based on my viewing of the 1974 version and my general aversion to Adam Sandler comedies, I don't plan to.

It's a classic underdog story, in this case a bunch of inmates at an unnamed Florida prison who are enlisted to take on their guards, who play on a semi-pro team that's the pride and joy of the egotistical warden. They're supposed to just give the guards a tune-up for their upcoming season, but of course they have to go all out for the win.

Their leader is Paul Crewe (Reynolds), a former NFL quarterback who had his career cut short for shaving points. He hasn't touched a ball in a few years but is blackmailed by the warden into putting together a team.

The film, directed by Robert Aldrich ("The Dirty Dozen") from an original script by Tracy Keenan Wynn, is tonally weird. It never gets overly dark but there's some fairly abusive behavior by the guards and one horrific scene where an inmate is burned to death. But then we're supposed to laugh a few minutes later at all the male-bonding hijinks.

It pretty well ignores the darker aspects of prison life like gangs, drugs and rape. The biggest inter-prisoner conflict is racial as the black inmates segregate themselves from the whites, refusing to join Crewe's team at first. There are no Latinos to be seen and one token American Indian named, tellingly, as "The Indian."

As a protagonist Crewe seems more like an amalgam of traits than a coherent, well-defined character. I think the film would've been improved by giving us more of a glimpse of his life prior to the start of the story, where he's the boy toy of a wealthy woman, Melissa (Anitra Ford). He obviously loathes himself and the low state he's fallen to, essentially a hustler who sells his body for status and security.

I would've loved to have seen something about how he was doing exactly the same thing as a football player, but socioeconomic analysis is not in the mix.

In the opening scene Crewe lies sleeping while Melissa, wearing a skimpy negligee, tries to wake him for sex. He hautily refuses, throwing her off of him, and their encounter escalates in violence as he goes to leave, ending their relationship. Crewe eventually responds to her slaps and scratches by squeezing his hand over her face and then throwing her onto the ground. Despite her taunting, it plays as mean-spirited misogyny now.

He steals her Maserati -- actually a Citro├źn SM, a well-made but spectacularly ugly European import -- leads police on the sort of wild smash-up chase that became a hallmark of Reynolds movies, drives the car into the bay and later drunkenly assaults a couple of officers. Somehow this results in a sentence of just 18 months with parole.

Unfortunately, Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) threatens to find ways to extend Crewe's sentence and make his time as miserable as possible. He's assigned to the swamp reclamation crew, which basically consists of just shoveling out muck and then slopping it back in. The other prisoners target him as "Golden Boy," contemptuous of someone who had it all as a pro quarterback and cheated his way out of the game.

Eventually he forms a bond with a few, notably Caretaker (James Hampton), the apple pie-faced hustler who can get you anything inside the prison, from drugs to getting laid... with an actual woman! Michael Conrad plays Nate Scarboro, an older NFL veteran who is recruited as coach. Nothing is ever whispered about either man's life or how they ended up in prison.

The middle section of the movie is the standard "putting the team together" sequence, much like "The Dirty Dozen," where men are briefly featured as they join the team, and then their struggles coming together as teammates.

Unfortunately, the movie introduces guys and then almost immediately shunts them to the collective background. We meet Samson (Richard Kiel), a super-strong giant with a bit of a glass jaw, who continues to stand out simply because of being 7'2". But Sonny (Sonny Shroyer), a simple-minded hayseed, gets lost in the shuffle, as do most of the others.

Even Shokner (Robert Tessier), the bald-headed murderer feared by every man in the prison, is given a lavish introduction and then quickly becomes just another piece of beef in a football helmet. Crewe and Caretaker talk about how Shokner knows karate, so we keep expecting him to pull some chock-socky moves on the gridiron that never arrive.

The film was notable for using a lot of real former football players, including from the NFL, Canadian leagues and big-name college programs. These include Mike Henry, Joe Kapp, Ernie Wheelwright and Sonny Sixkiller. The most notable was Green Bay Packers legend Ray Nitschke as Bogdanski, the most fearsome player on the Guardsmen team.

In perhaps the film's signature moment, and certainly one of its genuinely funniest, Crew intentionally hurls the ball into Bogdanski's crotch in retaliation for his dirty play, leaving him stunned and woozy. Then for good measure, they do it again on the following play.

Stern-faced Ed Lauter plays Wilhelm Knauer, the guard captain and leader of their team. He beats Crewe to a pulp on a couple of occasions, but ultimately comes to respect him in the end. John Steadman is Pop, the prototypical elderly prisoner who serves as a warning beacon to Crewe. Harry Caesar plays Granville, an older African-American who is the first black man to sign onto the team and becomes its soul.

Charles Tyner is Unger, the uber-creepy prisoner who takes an unhealthy like to Crewe, then tries to kill him when his advances are rejected. (This is close as the movie comes to addressing sexual relationships between male prisoners.) Alas, Caretaker instead becomes the unintended victim of Unger's light bulb arson trap.

Bernadette Peters turns up briefly as the warden's secretary, sporting a truly magnificent bouffant of blonde hair. She acts very surly and distant but later solicits sex from Crew in exchange for access to the guards' medical records and practice films. This time, the transactional nature of sex doesn't seem to bother him.

The last third of the movie is the game itself, filmed mostly in long shots from the sidelines peppered with close-ups in the huddle or when Crewe is calling audibles. Aldrich occasionally mixes in some split-screen, sometimes with three or even four images in the frame, but they're cropped poorly and not very effective.

In general I think you'd get a better game on contemporaneous TV, even with 1974 technology.

In my opinion, "The Longest Yard" isn't a particularly standout role for Reynolds, who found overnight success with 1972's "Deliverance" after struggling for 15 years in television and low-budget movies -- describing himself as a "well-known unknown."

"The Longest Yard" along with "White Lightning," "Gator" and culminating with "Smokey and the Bandit" solidified Reynolds' star persona: the cackling, macho scamp who always seems to be operating just on either side of the law. The keening, high-pitched laughter that would become his aural trademark is heard several times throughout "Yard."

By 2020 Reynolds is now firmly in the dim past of America's cultural memory, but for a good dozen years or so he represented the apogee of male sex symbol. Dark and brooding looks tempered with an easy smile and twinkle in the eye made him a hot commodity at the box office and in pop culture.

His nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan in 1972 was perhaps one of the unwittingly greatest PR moves in Hollywood history, though he later said he regretted it. His generously hirsute torso seems practically bestial compared to the denuded times in which we now live. Thick and muscular in "Deliverance," his body is appropriately more wasted in here, befitting a character who probably only exercised regularly when he was getting a paycheck for it.

With the arrival of shaved, 'roided-up figures like Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the mid-1980s, Reynolds' day as an A-lister was effectively done.

So "The Longest Yard" isn't a deep character study, a laugh-out-loud comedy or a good football movie. I liked a lot of the ingredients that went into it but not how they were assembled. If I knew nothing about the film's history I would guess it was a pretty average-ish flick that was soon forgotten.

This movie is like the nobody in high school who become a multimillionaire, but nobody can really figure out why.