STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Bringing two movie comedy legends to (real) life

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We proudly share the following movie review as part of this blog’s self-designated Laurel & Hardy Month. What in the world is that, you ask? Click on the above image to learn more!

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When a movie had good intentions but eventually went off the rails, the late film critic Roger Ebert used to say that the movie “knew the words but not the music.” In Stan & Ollie, the music is so lush and sweet, you can forgive the words being a little garbled sometimes.

What I mean by that is, if you go in expecting a 100% factual story about the later career of film comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, you will leave the theater grumbling to yourself and ticking off a checklist of everything the movie got wrong. But if you go to see a heartfelt story about two talented comics in the twilight of their careers, you will be richly rewarded, even if you’re not a Laurel & Hardy fan.

The film addresses the period where Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) took to touring European music halls in the early 1950’s after any chances of making new movies had mostly dried up. For dramatic purposes, the film condenses a lot of the true story. L&H actually made three separate tours of Europe that were mostly successful. Here, it’s a single tour that doesn’t really take off until L&H do publicity in local towns to promote the show. A subplot of the movie is Stan trying to get financing for a L&H movie comedy based on the Robin Hood legend. In real life, there was an attempted Robin Hood project, but that had mostly fallen through the cracks by the time L&H began their initial tour.

One could keep on nitpicking like this all day long, but in the end, what one is left with is the movie’s characterizations and situations, and happily, these shine like the midday sun. Let me add to the chorus of voices that have already declared Coogan’s and Reilly’s acting work remarkable, and this is another area that transcends nitpicking. Coogan gets Laurel’s voice, body language, and (seemingly) thought processes down pat. And yes, Reilly does have layers of prosthetics to help him show us the real “Babe” (Hardy’s lifelong nickname). But that only further demonstrates how Reilly managed to convey a vulnerable person breaking through those pounds of fake flesh.

The supporting actors deserve kudos as well. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson convey strength and humanity as The Boys’ wives, fiercely protecting their men from the world (and each other). Rufus Jones is a smirky delight as tour producer Bernard Delfont, trying to act as though he cares about Stan and Babe’s welfare while keeping one eye on the box-office take. And Danny Huston displays appropriate gruffness as L&H’s indulgent movie producer Hal Roach. (Well-meaning L&H historians have stated that Roach comes off as too harsh in this movie. The lawsuits that sailed back and forth between Laurel and Roach in 1939 [not depicted in this film] indicate that Roach was indulgent of Laurel’s creativity but never shy about asserting his authority when necessary.)

If you aren’t familiar with Laurel & Hardy’s movies, you’ll still appreciate Stan & Ollie’s subtle and layered portrayal of their real-life friendship. If you are a fan of L&H, you’ll be amazed at how their real-life story (at least in this instance) parallels their movie comedies. The overwhelming theme of all of their movies was of two naive friends trying to hold their own against a hostile world. In telling their late-life story, Stan & Ollie only deepens that theme.

(If, by chance, you want to hear more of what I have to say about this wonderful movie, click here to visit my Laurel & Hardy podcast, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts.)

LITTLE MAN TATE (1991) – Amazing movie about an amazing young man

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The following is my contribution to Girl Week 2018, hosted by Dell on Movies from Nov. 19-25, 2018. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on female-centered movies, with women in front of and/or behind the camera!

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In her directorial debut Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster exhibits the same innate, glorious intelligence that she has personified so beautifully as an actress in movies such as The Accused and Contact. In her best movies, she comes across as a no-nonsense woman who is sometimes too blunt because she has no time or patience for social niceties. That approach works perfectly here, particularly in Foster’s supporting role as a single mom who is clueless about how to handle her prodigy-son.

The title character is played by Adam Hann-Byrd, who is one of those Hollywood rarities — a child actor who doesn’t give off the slightest sense that he’s acting. Fred, the child prodigy, is a genius, and of course, he is branded as a freak by his more average classmates because of this. Dianne Wiest plays a teacher who wants to encourage Fred by enrolling him in a summer course for such prodigies. Thanks to the teacher’s snooty attitude, Fred’s mom is immediately suspicious of her motives. But both women, through the film’s many trials of Fred, provide what he needs: the teacher provides the means for Fred to express himself with like-minded students; Fred’s mom provides his nurturing and love at all costs.

That includes making Fred unsympathetic at some points. One scene, a conversation between Fred and his mom, shows Fred belittling her for not being as smart as he is. Rather than letting Fred have it with a you-don’t-talk-like-that-to-your-mother speech, his mother sits there and takes it — not because she’s a wimp by any means, but because she knows that Fred is lashing out at not being accepted by his peers and she is, unhappily, his closest target. Their reconciliation scene is touchingly directed by Foster, too — the teacher tries to nose into their business one more time, realizes what’s happening, and backs off.

Those scenes, and many others, are so refreshing because they treat everyone in the movie, from Fred on down, like real people. Harry Connick Jr. plays a college-age student who sympathizes with and befriends Fred, and yet he and Fred also have a confrontation. Nobody in the movie is spared from being human (read: losing his/her temper, even with someone he/she loves). That alone makes the movie a rarity in mainstream films.

1991 was a beautiful year for female-directed movies, including Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and this one. In fact, these two would make an ideal double feature. Just keep a generous supply of Kleenex nearby while watching them.

INTERIORS (1978) – Woody Allen’s first foray into drama

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Let me go on record as one of the few people in America who liked Interiors.

I first saw it a few years after its initial release, by which time the furor about comedian Woody Allen having dared to film a laugh-free drama had died down. But it continues to inspire hostility among many of Allen’s followers. In his recent biography about Allen, David Evanier deemed the movie “practically unwatchable” and “dead on arrival.” While I concede that the movie is often very tony and talky, and it certainly makes countless nods to Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman, I’d hardly call the movie unwatchable.

The story concerns an upper-class family whose members could finance some analysts’ sessions for several years. The family has three sisters, all of whom crave respect: Flyn (Kristen Griiffith), a successful actress who feels she’s wasting her talent in vapid TV dramas; poet Renata (Diane Keaton), also successful, who worries that her work isn’t enough to earn her immortality; and Joey (Marybeth Hurt), who flits from job to thankless job and wishes she could express herself creatively. These women have been raised in the dark shadow of their mother Eve (Geraldine Page), who is obsessed with perfection in the aesthetic world around her as she leaves her daughters’ psyches in tatters.

Eve is in the midst of estrangement from her long-time husband Arthur (E.G. Marshall), who has finally come to regard his seemingly perfect home as an “ice palace.” Eve holds out a naive hope that Arthur will come back to her, but in a low-key yet tense scene, he announces to the family that he wants what he euphemistically calls “a trial separation” from Eve. It’s a pivotal scene in the movie, as we watch hostility and sorrow quietly boil over at the family dinner table. It gets even worse for the daughters when, at the movie’s halfway point, Arthur brings home his new girlfriend Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), whose bohemian ways and zest for life throw the family and the home completely out of kilter.

I can see why moviegoers find Interiors off-putting. The family is obsessed with upper-middle-class concerns (what people these days would call “First World Problems”), and they express themselves all too verbosely. (At one point, Joey tells her mother, “There’s been perverseness, and willfulness of attitude in many of the things you’ve done” — not exactly the kind of sentiment you ought to express to your mentally ill parent.) The movie’s naysayers have said Woody Allen seems to have cribbed this kind of dialogue from the subtitles of Bergman’s movies. Yet I truly believe that this is exactly the kind of way that these women’s repressive mother has probably taught them to express themselves.

David Evanier opines that “The family in Interiors was a family that Allen knew nothing about.” Perhaps you’d have had to live with a woman like Eve to believe that such people really exist. (I did live with a mother figure like Eve, about which the least said the better.) But I found this family all too believable, and Allen does a superb job of showing his characters as tortured and often hostile, but not unlikable. And Allen (expectedly) does not cop out with a happy ending for the movie; it depicts several “life lessons” from which one would expect the characters to have learned something about themselves, yet they remain rigid and frigid right to movie’s end.

I can’t help thinking that if this movie had been released anonymously and that we hadn’t known that it came from a man best known for his all-stops-out comedies, the movie might have gotten a little more credit. (Two years after Interiors came out, movie star and first-time director Robert Redford earned plaudits and Oscars for Ordinary People, which explored a similarly repressive middle-class milieu.) Befitting the movie’s austere setting, Allen’s direction is appropriately spartan, with shots and scenes that quietly make their points and then move briskly on rather than wallowing in melodrama (as Allen, in interviews at the movie’s time of release, feared he was doing).

Interiors might not be to everyone’s tastes, but don’t tell me it isn’t lifelike, because I’ve met too many pretentious people with the same kinds of hangups. It’s an excellent foray into pure drama from a man who found that he can’t always use comedy to soften life’s harsher moments.

 

FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY (1997) – A story sprinkled with fairy dust

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There’s a very telling moment in FairyTale: A True Story where a young girl asks Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, if he has ever told anyone how he does his tricks. “Never,” Houdini replies, “and I never will.” Then with a wink in his voice, Houdini adds, “Of course, most people don’t really want to know how you’ve done them anyway.”

It is at that level that the “true story” of FairyTale is approached. The movie is based on the lives of British cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who created an escape for war-torn England by taking photos which, they claimed, showed real fairies. Needless to say, the movie doesn’t quite tell the true story. It has since been shown that the photographs were faked. And yet, do we really want to know how, or even if, they faked the photos?

As if to drive this point home, the movie opens with Elsie attending a performance of Peter Pan. Since this is the same motif that began Steven Spielberg’s Hook, we know we’re not in a for a searing docudrama. Still, Elsie’s family could use a few fairies. Elsie’s brother has died of pneumonia, and Frances’ father has sent her to live with Elsie while he fights in World War I.

Frances turns out to be a liberating force. When, at her first day in Elsie’s school, she is questioned at length about her previous home of Africa, she ends the class’ quizzing with, “Are there any more stupid questions?” Later she confiscates a camera from Elsie’s dad, and she and Elsie take the infamous photos, which come to the attention of no less than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as Doyle’s pal Houdini.

The fairies themselves take somewhat of a backseat in the story. Apart from a few terrific shots of the fairies in flight, they don’t have much in the way of personality. But after a while, you begin to realize that’s beside the point. The question is, why are there always naysayers who want the real world to intrude upon the innocent fun of childhood?

Apart from the charming Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel as Doyle and Houdini, there are no big-name stars in the cast, but there are also no bum performances. As the cousins, Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl are the best sort of natural child performers, completely unadorned by Hollywood affectations. And Phoebe Nicholls is endearing as Elsie’s mother, whose faith in life is restored by the whimsical photos.

Admittedly, the movie does take a while to get to its (beautifully realized) climax, and some younger audience members might get restless before the end. Personally, I was so grateful for a family movie which didn’t talk down to me, I began to believe that FairyTale might indeed be a gift from the little blighters.

GUN CRAZY (1950) – Annie Laurie Starr, get your gun

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I enjoy hearing stories about how people met their spouses. It gives me a little insight into both the couple and the person who’s telling the story.

In Gun Crazy, Bart Tare (John Dall) meets his future wife, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), while he’s shooting at her head at a carnival.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The movie begins with flashbacks of the young Bart, showing how interested he is in guns. He doesn’t want to kill anyone or anything with them. At the risk of sounding Freudian, in Bart’s view, a gun seems to be a piece of security in life — which Bart could certainly use, having been raised only by his sister.

Bart pays a price to society for his gun obsession and is then set free. On his first day of freedom, Bart and his old friends go to town to attend a carnival, where Bart sees Laurie performing as a sharpshooter. Sparks (and bullets) fly quickly between the two.

Through the usual film-noir machinations, Laurie is eventually as free and beholden to no one as Bart is. So she decides to make Bart beholden to her. She figures that, with their joint expertise with guns, they can get whatever they want in life. At first, Bart hesitates at getting that down-and-dirty, but when Laurie threatens to leave him, Bart caves.

From there, an ever-spiralling series of circumstances make it doubtful that Bart and Laurie will make it to their first wedding anniversary.

Even by noir standards, this is one of the most pervasive weird movies I’ve ever seen — and one of the most riveting. Its most fascinating aspect is how the movie’s POV nonchalantly observes this in-over-the-head couple going on an increasingly violent robbing and shooting spree. Cinema’s Production Code guaranteed that the couple would pay for their actions in the end — but that doesn’t mean that viewers don’t get some titillating and voyeuristic thrills along the way.

John Dall is strangely touching as Bart, depicting how Bart’s pacifism slowly gets swept away by this woman who’s giving him the romance he thought he’d never have (in more ways than one). And Peggy Cummins long ago entered film-noir history as the ultimate manipulative dame. She offers us Laurie at face value, with no reasons or apologies for her grubby, grabby behavior — and just like Bart, we get swept up in her quiet fury.

I’ve never owned a gun or even fired one, for the same reason that many people give: I fear that it would be too easy to give into its temptation as an easy answer to an otherwise low-key conflict. Gun Crazy takes that premise to its ultimate extension. If only Bart had been more obsessed with marbles or coin-collecting when he was young…

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) – No-holds-barred look at a smooth, ruthless drug dealer

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It’s astonishing how far dysfunctional families will go to convince themselves that they’re not living a lie.

In American Gangster, the dysfunctional family is the American heroin market. The head of the family is druglord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). And the outsider and truth-teller is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an estranged police detective.

Roberts’ and Lucas’ stories are told in mesmerizing parallel. Roberts is cherry-tree-era George Washington when it comes to being a cop. He does something major, seemingly a good deed, that brings him eternal enmity among his fellow cops.

Lucas does something major, too — dealing heroin in Harlem. Yet he is looked up to by his family, his “employees,” and even the Italian mobsters from whom he steals the drug trade. Seemingly, the only person in the world interested in bringing Lucas to justice is Roberts.

Lest these men sound cliche, it’s only because I won’t spoil the movie by divulging its rich character details: The way that Roberts bluffs magnificently to rescue a fellow cop from his certain murder. The way Lucas goes to elaborate lengths to obtain the pure heroin he deals. And best of all, the telling bit of flashy clothing that finally tips Lucas off to Roberts.

Such details are the result of another razor-sharp script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and direction from Ridley Scott (who only seems to be getting better in his fourth decade of movie-making).

Among the supporting players, the nicest surprise is Ruby Dee as Lucas’ elderly mother. At first, she seems like a typical, saintly old lady. Then there’s a scene in which she encapsulates an entire movie’s worth of characterization in about three minutes. Beautiful.

Denzel Washington delivers another personal best. Watch Lucas’ sleek suavity boil over into frightful anger. Or watch his face subtly droop when he realizes his drug kingdom is starting to decay.

I had feared that Russell Crowe, as in L.A. Confidential, would play his cop as a one-note good guy. But Roberts’ noble detective work is just one strand of his DNA. As the rest of his life shows us, he’s not terribly virtuous; he’s just driven to do this deed.

Most amazing aspect is how the movie makes us identify with these opposing extremes of the same coin. If you can stomach the violence — and from the start, the movie pulls no punches — American Gangster will richly reward you.

THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) – Machismo in space

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The Right Stuff gives us a 1980’s gloss on America’s first astronaut heroes, warts and all.

The story begins in the 1940’s, with the Air Force trying to find a pilot who could break the sound barrier and live to tell about it. Near the beginning of the movie, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) rides his horse to an Air Force base to inspect the plane intended to break the barrier. The plane’s ignition is spewing flames and looks as though it could take off on its own. The symbolism is none too subtle: Test pilots were the last American cowboys, and Yeager is going to have to lasso this wild horse on his own.

Eventually he does so, leaving other test pilots with new worlds to conquer. “Hot-dog” pilots descend upon Edwards Air Force Base to break Yeager’s records, and Yeager counter by topping the record-breakers. It seems as though there are no more frontiers to tame, until the Russians get a man into space before the Americans. Soon NASA is looking for space jockeys who have “the right stuff,” which means having the guts to fly into space and also look good for the press while they’re doing it.

While The Right Stuff has drawn raves over the years, its critics have contended that the movie displays broad caricatures instead of characters. (Lyndon Johnson, then the vice-president who helped get the space program started, is shown as a yahoo, though his most riotous line of dialogue is said to be based on fact.) I prefer to think that the movie shows its heroes to be all too human, rather than the standard movie heroes of perfection. The space program was obviously making up its rules as it went along, and it asked its pilots to do things that hadn’t been asked of them before. (When a nurse gives Gordon Cooper [Dennis Quaid] a test tube to fill with a particular type of bodily fluid, his reaction is one for the books.)

The cast in uniformly good. Like the pilots they portray, Shepard, Quaid, Scott Glenn, and especially Ed Harris as John Glenn, all come through with flying colors. As NASA housewives who could have come off as drab, Barbara Hershey and Pamela Reed, among others, give nice shadings to their roles. Best of all are the Washington bureaucrats trying to save face — Donald Moffat savoring the role of Vice-President Johnson, and Jeff Goldblum and comedy veteran Harry Shearer as Washington’s answer to Laurel and Hardy.

The movie is not quite perfect. At a little over three hours, it could have used a little trimming. It has a couple of endings too many, and some gaps in continuity. (One scene depicts bar-hopping women hoping to “conquer” all of the astronauts, and the scene inexplicably cuts from John Glenn eyeing the women to Glenn lecturing his fellow astronauts on abstinence.)

But the movie is never less than engrossing, and if you can tolerate the machismo banter, it’s worth it to see a portrait of some flawed men who nevertheless had what it took to conquer space.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007) – Pulp friction

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Black Snake Moan doesn’t begin to hide its trash origins; in fact, it embraces them. But the movie gets at something, and it does so far more effectively than a lot of higher-toned movies.

The movie’s premise at first seems hopeless. Rae (Christina Ricci) is an outrageous nymphomaniac. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a broken-down blues singer whose wife has just left him. One day, Lazarus finds Rae at the side of a road near his home, beaten and near death. He goes to town to get some medicine for Rae and finds out about her seedy reputation. Out of nowhere, Lazarus divines a cure for what ails Rae: He chains Rae to the radiator in his front room and, in essence, says that she won’t be released until her demons are expunged.

That premise alone is going to elicit at least two reactions from the movie’s potential audience. Feminists will carp about an older man passive-aggressively chaining up a woman because he thinks it’s for her own good. Then there are the lascivious men in the audience who will lick their lips and say, “Ooh, man! Christina Ricci in bondage!”

But surprisingly, once the movie gets past its sweaty, Southern Gothic beginning, the characters really start to unveil some interesting layers. Ricci takes what could have been a simple, tacky role and gives it some genuine depth. Her take on Rae reminds me of Jodie Foster in The Accused — showing a woman’s vulnerability in the face of her supposed worldliness and sexual voraciousness.

And Jackson, after sleepwalking through Snakes on a Plane, once again twitches with electricity. It’s as if his Bible-spouting hitman from Pulp Fiction suddenly got a mirror stuck in his face to show him that he has a few of his own demons to conquer.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Justin Timberlake is very effective as Rae’s erstwhile lover. “Law & Order’s” S. Epatha Merkerson is a sunny presence throughout, providing some joy to counter Jackson’s gravitas. And John Cothran Jr. takes a stereotypical role — a very preachy preacher — and turns it inside out. The scene where his character explains his concept of heaven is a metaphor for all of the movie’s characters — cutting through the guff and getting to what really matters.

At its center, Black Snake Moan is about an old codger condescending to save a young girl’s soul and realizing how much cleansing his own soul needs. The movie might not be as spirited as a homecoming revival, but it certainly is a blessed tonic to more pretentious movies with similar themes.

 

SCHINDLER’S LIST (1997) – Steven Spielberg’s sobering look at the Holocaust

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Schindler’s List — a clear-eyed, flawless look at the Holocaust — is a movie filled with infinite paradoxes.

The most obvious paradox is its true story. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a German businessman who ran factories that made unusable products in order to save the lives of the factory workers — 1,100 Jews who otherwise would have been sent to Nazi death camps.

The movie shows the man but never quite explains him. Schindler is a rich womanizer — what has he to gain from this astounding gesture? Spielberg answers that question, not by delving into Schindler’s character, but by showing the atrocity going on around Schindler.

That atrocity is best personified by Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Nazi who runs the Krakow ghetto as well as a Jewish death camp. Goeth is the absolute evil among evils, a man playing God in the most lethal sense.

Goeth’s atrocities range from petty to tragic. In one scene, he considers raping one of his Jewish servants, but then he verbally ponders how tainted she would seem to him after the rape, and so he merely slaps her. In another instance, a Jewish woman tries to warn him of a mistake in one of the death camp’s physical details. Goeth shoots the woman, then tells an underling to correct the mistake.

Schindler’s List soberly examines the ethics between these two extremes. The Nazis want to have somebody, anybody, come begging to them. They play into the hands of Schindler, who acts as though he’s using the war to his own ends when what he’s really doing is saving Jewish lives.

Then there are the movie’s commercial paradoxes. In 1993, nobody would have expected Steven Spielberg, known mostly for escapist fare, to have made such a haunting movie. It looks as though a camera was just set down in the middle of the Holocaust to soberly record its brutality. The movie runs over three hours and is not a minute too long.

 

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) – It’s a treasure, all right!

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of those great movies that has permeated the American consciousness. Even if you’ve never seen it, you might think you have, just because of all of its pop-culture touchstones.

“Fred C. Dobbs is nobody’s fool!” “Can you help a fellow American who’s down on his luck?” “I don’t need to show you no stinkin’ badge!” And most of all, Walter Huston dancing on top of a hill of gold (comedian Billy Crystal has worked that one to death).

But despite its parodied points, six decades later, the movie still surprises. It remains one of the best-ever filmic statements of man’s infinite capacity for greed. It has great performances and a thunderous pace. (Oscars went to Walter Huston for the former, and his son, director John Huston, for the latter.) And even the first 15 minutes, which is little more than exposition, is culturally fascinating. You’re listening to a bunch of street bums talk, and you think, even the bums were more literate than they are now.

The story takes place in 1925 Tampico and concerns a down-on-their-luck trio (Huston, Tim Holt, and Humphrey Bogart at his most fascinatingly unlikable). Huston is an old prospector who claims to have gone through several fortunes in gold. Bogart and Holt, with no job prospects, decide to go prospecting in Mexico, with the old man’s expertise at hand.

Turns out the old man knows even more about human nature than he does about prospecting. He spouts some dire philosophies about what gold can do to human nature, and Dobbs (Bogart) swears that could never happen to him and his buddy Curtin (Holt). Guess who turns out to be right. Dobbs at his most paranoid is not a pretty sight.

It’s a movie deserving of its classic status. And along with its other virtues, try playing “Spot the Star.” It’s not every movie that sports John Huston (as an American hounded by Dobbs), a young Robert Blake (selling lottery tickets), and “I Dream of Jeannie’s” Barton MacLane in the first ten minutes.