Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Olive Films - WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR DADDY, ALICE'S RESTAURANT & 1969 on Blu-ray ""

Saturday, March 21, 2015


WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR DADDY? (1966; Blake Edwards)
I had been wanting to see this film ever since screenwriter extraordinaire Larry Karaszewski made me aware of it via one of his informative Trailers From Hell commentaries.
There were a bunch of things about the movie that caught my interest. First, the cast. James Coburn, Aldo Ray, Carroll O'Connor, Harry Morgan, and Dick Shawn. Good group and especially around 1966, James Coburn was firing on all the cylinders of his Coburn-ness. Aldo Ray is also awesome and sadly underrated by many it seems. I must say that I was of that mind myself until I saw him in NIGHTFALL and subsequently heard that Tarantino liked Aldo Ray as well. Anyway, let me add a few other things that are interesting about this flick. First, it has a screenplay by William Peter Blatty (yes THAT one) and is produced and directed by Blake Edwards, who was also running through a strong period in his career around this time. Most Blake Edwards movies are pretty well known, especially among cinephiles, but this one gets talked about the least of most of them. This may have had to do with scarce availability until recently. Okay and one more thing that is neat about this movie is that Henry Mancini (who oft collaborated with Edwards) did the score and he kills it. It's one of the great unsung Mancini scores for sure. I love Mancini so it's always a pleasure to stumble across more of his infectious music.
What we have here is a military farce wherein a ragtag bunch of soldiers led by an uptight, by-the-book commanding officer are sent to capture a village in Sicily only to find themselves caught up in a grand wine festival with the opposing soldiers. The next day, when a higher ranking officer shows up (played gloriously by Harry Morgan) the fun really begins as both sides scramble to make the situation look much more professional and organized than it really is. Lots of wackiness ensues and Blake Edwards (and Blatty) are good at just this kind of zany hijinks. The morning after the festival features so classic Blake Edward's silliness as he shows the soldiers in various odd states of being passed out (in a fountain, on a flagpole and so forth). Edwards really is quite good with the visual gags, it's his apparent love of silent cinema coming though as it often does in his comedies. Whenever I see clever sight gags done well, it reminds me how much I miss then and the films and filmmakers that used to make the effort and take the time to set them up. This is a nice showcase for James Coburn of course. He functions so perfectly in the affable con-man type role and it is a pleasure to watch. I feel like every decade has a couple actors who are just absolutely in the zone and have a string of great roles. For the 1960s I feel like Coburn is one of those guys (as Elliott Gould would be in the 70s). Anyway, Coburn takes this movie on his shoulders and carries it all the way and does it well. It's a hoot to watch how things escalate and the lengths to which these soldiers go to maintain the illusion of real conflict. This kind of elaborate farce is not even approached these days by Hollywood and it saddens me a bit. I realize that this type of humor is not everyone's cup of tea, but I'm a sucker for it especially when it's done well as it is here. What's very enjoyable about this movie too is that the comedy gives way to genuine suspense in the last act and I really loved that. This really feels like the kind of movie that Quentin Tarantino just must be a fan of.

ALICE'S RESTAURANT (1969; Arthur Penn)
Sometimes I can really get in a groove with a movie that has a freewheelin' narrative structure. It's nice in occasion to see something that's not so hung up on three acts and whatnot. ALICE'S RESTAURANT is really that kind of thing. It really feels like one of those films that captures a time, place and mindset in a very memorable way. And it's a mindset that some part of me really admires and wishes would manifest itself again some day on a larger scale. So the fact that a film that is ostensibly a lighthearted comedy can accomplish that is kind of impressive.
Director Arthur Penn had an interesting progression getting to this movie. In 1958, he made THE LEFT HANDED GUN with Paul Newman, followed by MICKEY ONE with Warren Beatty 1965. MICKEY ONE is another unique film in his oevre. It's an experimental narrative with a great jazz score by Stan Getz. Penn's next two things were THE CHASE (with Brando) and of course BONNIE AND CLYDE (which is one he perhaps most remembered for). I find it fascinating that he directed one of the masterpieces of American violence and followed it with ALICE'S RESTAURANT which is a pretty gentle, warm-hearted film. 
As much as hippies sometimes annoy me, (especially as portrayed in films) this movie and the way music is woven into it are pretty refreshing. Perhaps it shows how cynical I've become that I can't imagine a time when this kind of sharing and giving state of mind was popular in some large circles. It just seems like something that could never happen today. It feels like some folks would take advantage and ruin it. Anyway, this story of a bunch of people setting up a restaurant and young man (Arlo Guthrie ) sort of finding his way is much more engaging than it should be. Normally a character like Arlo Guthrie plays in the film would end up being smarmy and bother the crap out of me, but he's a pretty charming fella in this so I have to give him some credit.
P.S. this movie also has a very fun M. Emmet Walsh cameo.

1969 (1988; Ernest Thompson)
And why not follow a film that came out in 1969 with a film that's set in 1969?
One crime that many films that are looking back on the 60s and 70s commit is abuse of popular music to set the period. I call it the "greatest hits soundtrack syndrome". FORREST GUMP is one offender that comes straight to mind. Well 1969 at least kicks off in a cool way with its use of "When I was Young" by the Animals. This song may have been used in another film, but not one that I can think of off the too of my head so that's a plus in my book. Call me a snob if you will, but I believe that using some of the less popular music of the period lends a certain personality and authenticity. Especially when there's so much good music out there from that period. It's pretty nice that the first time we hear Jimi Hendrix in the movie, it's via his song "Waterfall" and not "All Along the Watchtower" (which does play later) or "Foxy Lady". Though there are definitely several more obvious choices as far as music goes, for the most part It's a soundtrack that's been assembled with some care and there are a ton of songs here. I can get behind that. 
Sadly this film chooses not to do much in the way of costumes and hairstyles to set the period. Both Sutherland and Downey Jr. look like they pretty much stepped right out if their previous 80s films right into this (with the exception of some bellbottoms). Not that they have to be exaggerated stereotype hairstyles, but a little more effort on that front would have been appreciated. The cast is pretty stellar though. Winona Ryder, Bruce Dern, Mariette Hartley, and Joanna Cassidy round out a fine ensemble.
Watching older films with Robert Downey Jr. has become a little complicated for me, especially when he's plays troubled or somewhat destructive characters as he does in this movie. Not that it becomes an "art imitates life " kind of situation, but it does make me slightly uncomfortable. More sad than uncomfortable I guess because in my mind, I can kind of feel his unhappiness as a person through some of these performances. Or at least that's how it seems and it makes me want to fast forward to the present when he seems to be much more contented and confident as an actor. I also have a slight tendency to see Kiefer Sutherland as a little bland as the lead in certain movies from this period. He's come to prove himself as a guy who can really carry dramatic material, but perhaps there's something about this character (and this movie for that matter) that I don't find all that compelling. Yeah, I guess the movie as a whole just didn't connect with me as much as I thought it would. Your mileage may vary though so don't necessarily write it off.

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