Comes a Horseman, and six more movies

Comes a Horseman

After his brother is murdered, James Caan signs on as tough dame Jane Fonda's ranch hand, in this slow but smart and charming modern-day western.

"I've never seen such a pretty place," says one of the movie's cowboys, which is my evaluation of the marvelous cinematography by Gordon Willis. Despite the presence of Caan and Fonda, Jason Robards as the baddest of bad guys, and Richard Farnsworth, the visuals are the star of the show.



March 5, 20233

Fonda's excellent, of course, but the character she plays is a walking spoiler. She's dusty, antisocial, and doesn't speak much (basically, she's playing her father) but it's a movie and she's a movie star, so I was certain she'd be a changed woman by the end.

It's a movie trope — tough dames always need to be 'repaired' by something. Give me a strong woman character like the one Fonda's playing here, who doesn't get repaired in the story, because there's nothing wrong with being dusty, antisocial, and not speaking much, even if you're a woman.

That said, the repairing she gets here is sweetly done, and the movie is a winner, thoroughly engrossing all the way through. Best of this week's batch, I think.

Verdict: YES.

Directed by Alan J Pakula, fresh from doing All the President's Men.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Groucho Marx plays Otis P Driftwood, and provides plenty of laughs as the Marxes spoof the world of high culture.

Chico and Harpo joyously annoy a conceited opera singer, and Chico plays a number on the piano, which is delightful because there's such a look of joy on his face and on the faces of all the people watching. Then Harpo plays — the piano, not the harp, at least until a harp drops into the scene.

Zeppo, the unfunny Marx, is no longer present, but another actor plays the role Zeppo would've — the boring character — and he gets more screen time and he's more boring than Zeppo ever was.

Margaret Dumont is back, and perfect as always, as the target of Groucho's withering insults.

The popular consensus is that this is the brothers' best or second best film, but it's not. The comedy seems less inspired than in Animal Crackers or Horse Feathers, and especially after Duck Soup — their first movie to eliminate the un-funny songs and un-interesting romantic elements — it's disappointing to have those boring ingredients in the mix again. 

What's worse, some of the musical interruptions are sung opera-style, with a piercing soprano reaching for the high notes, so instead of merely having boring parts, like most Marx Brothers movies, this one has aggressively annoying parts.

A Night at the Opera is still funnier than most comedies, and recommended by me, absolutely. The stateroom and contract scenes are classics. But if you've got the Marx Brothers for a movie, why turn the camera toward singing and smooching by non-Marxists?

Based on a story by James Kevin McGuinness, who later wrote Rio Grande for John Wayne.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦   

Blonde Venus (1932)

One of the last of the pre-code movies, this opens with about five minutes of Marlene Dietrich and a dozen other women swimming naked in a pond, while men gather 'round to ogle. The nudity is tasteful, which means you can't see anything. Maybe there's a titty in there somewhere if you freeze frame it enough, but I'm not willing to put in that much effort for a glimpse of long-ago flesh.

Dietrich's husband (played by some very boring actor) has a deadly disease, and needs to see an expensive specialist in Germany. The movie is set in New York, though, so to raise the needed funds Ms Dietrich must come out of retirement as a nightclub singer and dancer, and perhaps also as a prostitute.

In the night club, she dances wearing a gorilla costume and surrounded by black dancers, then takes off the hairy mask to sing her number. Like the nudity mentioned earlier, it's questionable what that scene is about, but let's move along.

Future stars Sterling Holloway and Hattie McDaniel appear in bit parts, Cary Grant plays Dietrich's lover, and little Dickie Moore plays her son, but it's a bore any time Dietrich isn't on screen, and sometimes when she is.

Don't give up, though. The movie gets much better in its second half.

After her husband's miraculous cure, he furiously discovers exactly how Dietrich earned the money that sent him to the doctor in Germany, and gets all indignant and huffy about, basically, still being alive. So she runs away with their son, and with her getaway Blonde Venus becomes terrific.

Dietrich was a dynamo, and she's still one of the greats.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Earthworm Tractors (1936)

This is an antiquated but occasionally funny comedy about a "natural-born salesman" who says he can sell anything to anyone. He wants to sell something big, and tractors are pretty big, so he signs on with the Earthworm Tractor Company (Caterpillar, get it?), whether they want him or not.

Joe E Brown stars, and the name might be unfamiliar to you, but you'd know his odd face. And he seems like a salesman to me — always smiling, always talking, eager to take your money but not knowing much about the product.

The movie provides some laughs, things blow up, and there are a few amusing cool moments of tractor mayhem. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything (1980)

A rich man has died, leaving $100,000 to his secretary, and nothing but a gold pocket-watch to his nephew (Robert Hays, from Airplane!). Ah, but the gold watch isn't merely a gold watch — it's a science fiction gold watch.

This was an Operation Prime Time event, made for non-network television, and it's as cheap and cheesy as you'd expect. Pam Dawber plays her role too broadly cutesy, but Hays delivers a few laughs.

The rape and sex jokes are uncomfortable and the story is low IQ, but if you want something brainless but still watchable, this is exactly that.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Mad Max (1979)

Max Rockatowsky is a cop in post-apocalyptic Australia, and he's mad. It's a weird world of fast cars and furious Mel Gibson, where everyone's savage and high-octane crazy.

I liked this a hell of a lot when I was twenty-something, and it still holds up. It's set in a future where everything's scarce except, apparently, gasoline and auto parts, but it would be foolhardy to look for logic in any of this.

Anyway, it's impossible to be skeptical, so buckle up for a rowdy road western with Aussie accents, and action that never lets up.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

TimeQuest (2000)

From the title and the fact I'd never heard of it, I was expecting this to be a typical low-budget time travel movie. Well, it's low-budget, and it's not great, but it's far from typical.

Ralph Waite (from The Waltons) goes back in time to stop the assassination of John F Kennedy. After he gets there and does what he'd come to do, the movie is about the changes we'd have seen if JFK hadn't been killed — Lyndon Johnson was never President, and by the turn of the millennium the US has a colony on the moon. That's where Kennedy's body will be buried when he dies peacefully of natural causes at the age of 83.

John, Jackie, and Bobby Kennedy are the movie's major characters, and because they're all such familiar faces even now, it's unconvincing to see them — and Dan Rather, J Edgar Hoover, Walter Cronkite, and Marilyn Monroe — played by people who look and seem and often act nothing like the originals. For most of the cast playing real people, there is no physical resemblance, and the only actor who gets it right is Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure) as LBJ.

Bobby, by the way, as played by someone named Vince Grant, comes off as a rat bastard.

Knowing that he's sidestepped death, the movie's JFK decides to stop his philandering, and instead dedicates himself to changing the world — getting American soldiers out of Vietnam, proposing a peace treaty with the Soviet Union, etc, so the movie becomes a Kennedy liberal's fantasy. 

Possibly I would've found this more compelling if I was the target audience — a Kennedy liberal — but JFK came and went a few years before my consciousness of politics, so I've been immune to history's habit of looking at him through hazy, tearful eyes.

That's what this movie does, very enthusiastically — it paints Kennedy as the pivotal man of the 20th Century, who, had he lived, would've made America great again. I'm skeptical of that, and the film doesn't make its case very well.

Bruce Campbell pops in, but his role is not significant.

It's nice seeing J Edgar get his well-deserved comeuppance, though, and as entertainment, TimeQuest is borderline OK.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Coming soon: 

Air Force One (1997)
Mad Max Fury Road (2015)
Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place (2011)
Murders in the Zoo (1933)
The Periphery Project (2012)
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
...Tick... Tick... Tick... (1970)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. I'm one of the Kennedy liberals who lived through the Kennedy administration and admired JFK. This is easily his ballsiest speech. You likely have no idea how unpopular this speech was among Republican America and 2/3 of Democratic America. This is before Civil Rights was a hip cause among liberal America. Kennedy just talked to the country and told them that they had been living a lie as Americans for nearly 200 years -- that white folks had intrinsic rights that Black folks didn't and that white folks were intrinsically smarter and more capable. He used simple language, and challenged America to examine its values. It probably would have cost him 1964 re-election, but, of course, we'll never know. But he interrupted America's evening to tell us we were wrong about the way we thought about race. It's just one more reason I admire the way he went about his business.



    1. I'm impressed. That doesn't sound like a politician's speech. It sounds like activism, and very eloquent.

      Can't imagine anyone who's not an ass listening and not realizing he was right. To this day, most Republicans would disagree with virtually all of it.

      JFK gave that speech on June 11, 1963. He had about five months left to live, perhaps not coincidentally.

  2. It's a pain in the ass to turn the volume up on my old computer, so as long as I have volume, why not insert a video of another John I admire, John Prine, along with his talented friend, Iris DeMent. I might have brought this to your attention a year ago, but I don't care. Here it is again.



    1. Nope sir, I don't believe that's a rerun for me. I'd've remembered that song because it's lovelier than a chocolate eclair. Goes on my playlist, thank ye.

  3. We are trapped in our time and escape is difficult and underappreciated, but most of human experience is outside our time, and worth knowing if we value perspective at all. Thus, the Marxes; thus, for most, JFK. Thus, Joe E. Brown.

    Joe E. Brown was a HUGE star of early talkie movies and radio. (My syntax got a little slippery there: I didn't mean talkie radio -- all radio was talkie -- silent radio failed quicker than the Trump administration.)

    But I digress. Virtually every adult of the 30s and 40s knew who Joe E. Brown was. He didn't retire until 1964, so I saw him a couple of times on black and white TV shows. But in his prime, he was a gigantic comedy star.

    His cousin, Joe E. Ross didn't do so well.


    1. If I keep cleaning up my prose, maybe somebody will hire me to clean up their back yard or their past.

      The Joe E. Ross who is Joe E. Brown's imagined cousin is not the Joe E. Ross who played Gunther Toody and famously said, "Oooo, Oooo".

      I hope that straightens things out, but I feel the hot breath of turbulence just around the corner.


    2. Nice touch, correcting my boo-boo and making me laugh about it. His name is right there in big letters on the poster, too.

      Were they really cousins?

      Sadly, it's 9:00 and that's my new bedtime. Gotta get up early to catch the bus tomorrow...

    3. They were spiritual cousins in JohnWorld, but would have flunked a DNA test.


    4. Anyone who's flunked tests is all right with me.


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