Cable Quickies – Popi

I watched Popi with Alan Arkin on TCM during their Latino Images in Film Marathon, which I posted about for Quelle’s Out of the Past Classic film blog. I remembered loving the film as a kid, but seeing it now the drama is much more clear. Like many films of the late ’60s, such as The Russians Are Coming… The Russians Are Coming! also coincidentally starring Alan Arkin, there is a sense of datedness as Hollywood begins discovering its social conscience in earnest.

Alan Arkin plays Abram, a hard-working Puerto Rican immigrant widower with two sons, Luis and Junior, who he feels he is losing to the streets of Spanish Harlem. He works two jobs and gets 5 hours of sleep, as a super and a hotel waiter; he can’t marry his sweetheart Rita Moreno because he wants to put the kids first. But when he gets mistaken for a Bay of Pigs veteran at a Cuba Libre meeting at the hotel, he gets a crazy idea to go to Miami and have the kids be mistaken for Cuban refugees, so they’ll be taken in by rich benefactors.

Putting Alan Arkin’s brownface role aside- something he also did in the seminal cop buddy movie Freebie and the Bean (full review)- the movie really captures the feel of late-60’s New York and Spanish Harlem especially. The boys steal and jump the subway turnstile, learning from their friends; they fight with a crazy kid in the building, who likes to torture pigeons. The street is portrayed as quite rough and we see it roughening them, despite their good hearts. And this is what’s killing their Popi, who wants them to be able to be children.

Arkin and cinematotographer Andrew Lazslo

Arthur Hiller (who’d directed The Americanization of Emily, and would go on to Silver Streak) manages to make the film feel natural, with a mild comedic energy running throughout. The chemistry between Arkin and the dignified Moreno is good, but the film takes the unfortunate turn of actually having him go through with his crazy plot, which isn’t very funny, and seems very out of character. He takes them on a bus to Miami, teaches them to pilot a boat, and sends them out to sea. Then for three days he’s biting his fingernails, listening to the news, waiting for them to be rescued. When he thinks they’ve died, he throws himself into the ocean to drown himself, only to hear about them on his radio just in time.

The third act has the dehydrated kids in the hospital while he tries to sneak in to see them, and remind them to speak only in Spanish. And it feels forced. I missed the first half of the movie, when he was a worrisome father trying to keep his two boys out of trouble, and yearned for it to be a family comedy-drama that showed them surviving the miasma of ’60s urban malaise. But the two boys- whose acting careers sadly end a few years after this- and Arkin himself are such enjoyable company that the movie remains watchable.

Rita Moreno on set

It’s still a very touching relic and made a good point, that at the time the hard-working immigrants who came over were suffering while political refugees seemed to be getting the American dream everyone wanted. And it was a less patronizing portrayal of Hispanics during a time when Hollywood only wanted them with a switchblade in their hand, even if Arkin got the lead role. Rita Moreno got the Poitier role of quiet dignity to help assuage the brownface. It’s still worth seeing today, and while it’s heavier on smiles than laughter, it is still a memorable film.

Latino Images in Film on Turner Classic Movies

Got a late start on this one, but Raquel over at the excellent Out of the Past movie blog- named for that awesome Robert Mitchum noir but so varied in scope that you’ve always got something interesting to read- is reviewing many of the movies on Turner Classic’s marathon of Latino Images in Film. Now I’m not Latino, I’m of Italian & Irish descent, but I get mistaken so much- as evidenced by Latino restaurateurs insistence on addressing me in Spanish, then looking puzzled when I say I can’t speak it- that I feel that I can speak about issues such as “brown face” as Raquel calls it. Because if I were an actor in the ’40s, I’d probably be doing it.

“Brown face”

I’ve always been fascinated with old Hollywood’s treatment of race; it began with theater, when Shakespeare would have actors cross-dress, and do you think he got a Moor to play Othello? That carried over, and in high school I got my first look at insidious prejudice when a theater troupe came to perform Romeo & Juliet for us. Romeo was played by a big black dude who’d have made a great Othello, and I thought he did a great job, but my classmates couldn’t get over his race. This was the era of “reverse racism,” when Clinton was about to be elected, and whitey was scared. If a black guy can play Romeo, how come Charlton Heston can’t play a Mexican in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil? Well, no one wants to erase Charlton and use CG to put in Jimmy Smits for crying out loud. I think Welles, with his theater background, who had played Othello himself, was a product of his times. He wanted the best performance, and meant no disrespect. He just wasn’t enlightened enough. It’s still one of my favorite films, but it’s a sure improvement to hear filmgoers complain about Heston in brownface, and not carp on Baz Luhrmann using Harold “Waaaaalt!” Perrineau as Mercutio in Romeo + Juliet.

“Says here you immigrated from the Planet of the Apes.”

I’m most interested in seeing these:
Salt of the Earth (1954), a docudrama about a New Mexico miner’s strike that was mired in the shameful House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. This film shows how progressive Hollywood was getting after the Code made things child-safe in the mid-30s, only to be smacked down by another witch hunt. The Mexican-American workers are striking for equal wages, and the film follows the effects on them and their families at home.

Terror in a Texas Town (1958) which stars the always-excellent Sterling Hayden in even-whiter-face as a Swede whaler who fights a greedy rancher who killed his Paw. I’m assuming this is in the series because Eugene Martin plays Pepe Mirada. I love Hayden, and the script is by that other blacklisted pinko Dalton Trumbo, whose talents are well-known, so this is worth watching. Let’s see how Trumbo writes the Mexican characters- patronizing, condescending, or believable? Plus, I hear Sterling kills with a harpoon in this. A western with harpoons? Cool.
Popi (1969) I love Alan Arkin, and we watched this a lot as children in the ’70s. We were too young to wonder why Arkin- who also played *cough* Bean in Freebie and the Bean (full review)- was doing “brown face” or to think about the poverty of Spanish Harlem. We did know that a lot of Cuban refugees were coming over on boats and that’s why Popi- a Puerto Rican immigrant working 3 jobs to support his children- comes up with his crazy scheme to pass the kids off as Cuban refugees seeking asylum. I wonder why TCM didn’t also choose Freebie and the Bean, where Arkin plays a Mexican-American cop with a temper, arguing with his wife when he’s not saying “let’s get a taco.” (Yes, that’s where the line in Reservoir Dogs comes from). Well, actually I do- it’s pretty offensive, hearing him called “Bean” the whole time. It’s been ages since I’ve seen Popi and I want to see if it’s any better.

Thankfully nowadays instead of suffering through brown-face, we’ve gone full swing- now Italian-Americans are portrayed by Latino actors. Andy Garcia being called a “stinkin’ wop” by Sean Connery in The Untouchables, John Leguizamo as Vinny in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam are two examples. Now we just need Hollywood to understand that we don’t need movies with more ethnic roles, we just need to realize that Leguizamo doesn’t need to do “pasta face,” he can play any character. This is America, we don’t need to make excuses for ethnicity like in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies! “How come he’s got a French accent? Um, he’s a cop from Quebec, on vacation, when uh, terrorists strike!

“pasta face”

We’re slowly seeing that happen now that casting directors are more enlightened. At least Leading Man’s Ethnic Comic Relief Pal is better than Gang Member or Mechanic at Shady Body Shop. That’s about as lame as making every token Asian character a tourist or laundry owner. In New York City, the Chinese run the taco shops now anyway. It does bug me that some of my favorite actors like Luis Guzmán are often relegated to the same kind of role, so the problem still exists. But no one ever complains about Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface, or Cesar Romeo in whiteface as …. the Joker! Those are funny now. But Hollywood needs to stop worrying about what will play in the Walmart belt. “Ethnic” people live there too. All Americans were “ethnic” once!

Freebie and the Bean

Freebie and the Bean is one of the prototypical buddy cop movies, this stars natty dresser and crazy driver James Caan as “Freebie,” and the hot-tempered but by-the-books Alan Arkin as “the Bean,” so called because he is Mexican. When they’re not trying to kill each other they’re a great team of detectives, but they tend to destroy lots of property in the process. Sound familiar? Well, this is one of the early ones, sort of a West coast version of The Seven-Ups. There’s a hit on by Michigan Phil. Our two unorthodox street detectives have to stop the hit, with their zany method of crime fighting.

Unorthodox methods

Arkin and Caan have some terrific comic energy and riff off each other very well, so seeing them blunder and bellow through typical cop movie scenes is very entertaining. This one sets up all the cliches- oil & water buddies, loose cannon cops, ridiculous car chases, and the “gotcha” ending- but does them so well that it doesn’t feel weathered. There are multiple set pieces – the first car chase establishes how crazy Freebie is, then they top it a few times. They jump a moving train. They get stuck in San Francisco traffic so bad that Freebie commandeers a dirtbike and chases a van through a park during an art exhibition, knocking down a huge set of dominoes.

“let’s get a taco”

Richard Rush doesn’t even bother to linger on the dominoes, they just tumble in the background as a sight gag as the chase goes on, and never interrupts the pacing of the movie. There are a lot of stunts and memorable scenes, but director Richard Rush (The Stunt Man) nonchalantly keeps the story going, and focused on the characters. Both guys have lives other than cops; Bean is convinced that his wife (a hilarious Valerie Harper) is cheating on him; Freebie has his girl, but we never get “drama” shoved in our faces for its own sake. It’s sad that Rush made so few movies, because he makes this seem effortless.
Before The Blues Brothers put a cop car “in a truck!” these guys put one in a 3rd floor apartment. This is also where the “let’s get a taco” line from Reservoir Dogs comes from; Bean is always hungry, and when he beats up a huge redneck with a billy club up his sleeve he says casually “let’s get something to eat.” Later on he’s clamoring “I need a taco!” but I’ll leave you to discover that very funny scene. But even with all that, the majority of the fun comes from Arkin and Caan strangling each other as they drive each other nuts during their police work. These are two of our best actors, enjoying themselves and we get to share in the fun. This is a lost gem of the ’70s and fans of Arkin and Caan should definitely hunt it down. It is criminally not on DVD, but can be found on youtube.

The cycle chase

3. Full Moon High

Schlocktoberfest #3: Full Moon High

Pre Teen Wolf wolffoolery

I really like Larry Cohen’s films. Most are pretty trashy, but some transcend their exploitation-level budgets and concepts and become minor classics. It’s Alive! is a great grindhouse version of Rosemary’s Baby meets Thalidomide, and the excellent Black Caesar is one of the best of the blaxploitation genre- before American Gangster it was still one of the more realistic portrayals of how black gangsters wrested control of Harlem from the Mafia. Larry also made The Stuff and Q, which I will be reviewing this month- two minor classics I’ve missed so far. Full Moon High is the first comedy I’ve seen from Cohen, and unfortunately, comedy is a lot harder than horror.

Don’t drop the soap!

It stars Adam Arkin (Alan’s son, and Ted from “Life”) as Tony, the star quarterback of Full Moon High. Everyone hopes he can break the curse against their big rival, especially the campy Coach, played with creepy panache by Kenneth Mars. He’s a little too eager to slap his players on the ass, and when Tony drops the soap in the showers, you’re damn sure he won’t bend over to pick it up.

“You’re fucked.”

Tony has other problems. He’s got a crazy fan girl obsessed with him, and his Dad idolizes Joe McCarthy, fancies himself a spy, and has a bomb shelter in the basement. This is the ’50s, after all. His Dad takes him to Romania on a “spy mission” which mostly involves Ed McMahon sleeping around with Iron Curtain whores. Tony runs into a woman who claims to read palms- since books are banned- and when she reads his, she merely says “Oh shit!” and leaves. For fans of The Wolf Man, the spoofs are few and far between, but some of them are pretty funny. For example, after he’s bitten, he’s followed around by a person playing the violin music from the original film.

Stop following me around dammit!

On the way home, Tony is of course attacked by a wolf. He begs for it to take an arm or a toe instead of his throat, but alas, he is cursed to live forever and stalk the night feasting on human flesh. On the plane ride home. hijackers takeover the plane and blindfold everybody, so Tony can save the day by chomping on some butt. You might think that’s me being humorous, but when he gets home a rash of “nippings” occur… see, Tony’s a good guy and can’t bring himself to kill, so he just takes a nibble here and there… usually on a cute girl’s ass.

Midnight snack

“I’m more of a nosher,” he eventually confesses to an understanding gal. The nebbish turned werewolf gag is cute, but quickly wears thin. His paranoid father sees him transform, and holes himself up in the shelter, only to be killed by a ricochet. In remorse, Tony flees town for the open road, steals a bus, and wanders the country for 20 years. We see newspaper headlines, and portraits of the President change on the school wall to denote the passage of time. Cohen has some fun with this. When Nixon is put up, someone throws a rock at it, and Jimmy Carter’s photo won’t stay on the wall. And Shirley Chisolm is put up instead of Reagan.

Yeah, he went there!

When Tony finally returns home, he hasn’t aged so no one recognizes him; his stalker-girl is now married and has an effeminate son played by Jim J. Bullock (Monroe from “Too Close for Comfort”), but once the “nippings” resume, her husband and the cops try to hunt him down. Another gag is how the ’70s-era school is covered in graffiti, with kids fighting in the hallways and blowing pot smoke in the teacher’s face in the bathrooms. I kept thinking Tony was going to clean up the school, but we’re not subjected to any such corny crap. It’s all about the gags, thin as they are.

Son, don’t ever make me do this again!

Tony finally goes over the edge when a wacky broad ties him to her bed and starts whipping him, and he transforms while tied up. She is filming it, so eventually his secret comes out. He turns himself in, and the foremost authority on Insult Psychiatry, Dr. Brand (played by Alan Arkin, probably as a favor to his son) is brought in to pick his brain. Dad’s comic chops are much more honed, but he can’t save this turkey. He steals every scene he’s in, such as when he’s screaming at a suicidal guy on a ledge until he fights with a cop and they both plummet. He mocks Tony in his cell for “devolving instead of evolving,” and wants to skin him as a fur coat for his wife.

Not the silver condom!

They have a struggle and the guard shoots the cameraman, but instead of ending the movie or going completely wacky and break the fourth wall further, they make Tony escape and finally break his school’s football curse. The film really starts to drag here, and you can tell Larry is just filling time. Alan Arkin is always fun to watch, so it’s not excruciating, but this really should have been a 75 minute film like the original Wolf Man. It’s been on cable, so if you’re a die-hard fan of Alan Arkin, or The Wolf Man or Larry Cohen’s trashy works, give it a watch.

There’s a Carrie gag too. Note the middle finger.