Movies I’ve Recently Seen: Matewan, Crescendo, Paper Moon, Sophie Tucker, & the Bounty

Once again, a collection of films I’ve recently seen, either in the first time or the first in a long time, that didn’t belong in any other article I’ve written. From best to worst:

A Matewan (1987), recently-bought Blu-ray

Outside of John Sayles’ oral history trilogy, this story of union organizing and union busting circa 1920 is his the best film yet made. Inspired by a true story, it follows a group of West Virginia coal miners fighting for their rights. It’s not going to be easy. The mine owners, backed up by the government, will do anything to destroy the union. The miners – a collection of Blacks, Anglos, and Italians – must overcome their own prejudices to work together. Religion, music, and dead dreams carry this powerful film. At times Matewan feels like a western; especially at the climatic gunfight on Main Street. James Earl Jones plays a miner nicknamed Few Clothes. Chris Cooper, in his first film role, plays the union organizer who brings the miners together. The cast also includes Mary McDonnell and Sayles’ regular David Strathairn.

B+ Crescendo (2019), Cerrito

The film’s opening sets you up for an Israeli/Palestinian version of Romeo and Juliet, but the real focus goes not to the star-crossed lovers, but to the youth orchestra in which they belong. The whole point of this orchestra, aside from making music, is to bring together young people who have been raised to hate each other. That turns out to be a far more difficult chore than getting the young musicians to rehearse. To make the story more complicated, the maestro lives under the shadow of the horrible sins of his highly placed Nazi parents.

B+ Paper Moon (1973), Criterion Channel

In the first half of the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich seemed to make one good film after another – each different from the others. While Paper Moon isn’t up to The Last Picture Show or What’s Up Doc, it’s still a fine entertainment. Set in the depression and the dust bowl, the movie successfully mixes comedy and pathos. Ryan O’Neal plays a conman who may or may not be (but probably is) the father of a young girl (O’Neal’s real-life daughter, Tatum O’Neal). The young child turns out to be a far better con artist than anyone around her. László Kovács’ black and white photography recreates the Kansas of the early 30s (or at least how we imagine it).

C+ The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (2014), ChaiFlicks

You can easily tell that this biographical documentary is a labor of love. Producers Lloyd and Susan Ecker clearly adore the talented performer (Lloyd also narrates). Sophie Tucker was a famous singer through much of the 20th century. According to the film, she sang like no one else and had a strong streak of risqué humor, much of which was barely acceptable at the time. Director William Gazecki provides a nice touch by using her scrapbooks as a visual theme. But the film is so worshipful that you must wonder what they chose not to show.

D- In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), Kanopy

Before Marlon Brando, Mel Gibson, or even Clark Gable, a not-yet-famous Errol Flynn mutinied on the Bounty as Fletcher Christian in this strange cross between drama and travelogue. The dramatic section–much of the first half – is horrifically staged and performed, with awkward pauses between lines of dialog. Everyone overacts except Flynn, who does little more than stand there. With a few shots of early-1930s Tahiti, the movie changes to a travelogue. The bulk of the film examines Pitcairn Island, peopled with the descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian friends. With the island’s unique combination of Polynesian and British culture, this could have been interesting, but it’s hurt by a dull and often racist narrator. What saves the film from an F is the historical interest, the MST3K-like unintentional comedy, and the fact that it’s only 67 minutes long.