Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

An oversized ape is brought to America by a greedy promoter. Things go poorly. Sound familiar? Depictions of African rituals are handled with amazing accuracy and sensitivity.

Sixteen years after King Kong, RKO brought back much of the same team to make Mighty Joe Young. They even reused Fay Wray's screen. Here, a rich little girl on an African plantation buys Gorilla Joe as a baby and they grow up as great friends. And Joe grows to a great size, between eight and twelve feet, depending on the situation. Much larger than real gorillas but tiny compared to Kong’s fantastical 18 to 60 feet, depending on the situation. Pretty Jill is convinced by the promoter (Robert Armstrong) to bring her friend to America for fame and fortune, so no need for gas grenades here. While it was easy to sympathize with the monster Kong, Joe is intended entirely as a sympathetic character.

This was Ray Harryhausen’s first job as special effects animator, and there are a lot of effects on display. Not just Joe, but lions, people, cars, and a climatic building fire. It is easy to criticize the end result (visible wires, overlaid scenes sometimes shake) but this stuff was very new at the time and the effects took fourteen months to complete. I would guess that some sort of special effect was on screen for the majority of the 84 minute runtime.

Ben Johnson played the awe-shucks cowboy sent to Africa to rope the wild animals. He did a lot of westerns so our paths haven’t crossed much. But he was very memorable in The Last Picture Show. Less so in The Outlaw. Many familiar contract players appeared, particularly in the night club scenes. Specifically Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton) and Irene Ryan (Granny Clampett). Charles Lane had appeared in 241 feature films, this being the eleventh I’ve seen him in. He died thirteen years ago at a hundred and two, and somehow has a short film coming out soon.

It is mentioned that Jill’s contract was not legal because she was under aged. Maybe that meant she was under 21 (actress Terry Moore was twenty when the film was released) but in 1949 I suspect that means under 18, which makes the 30ish Johnson going off with her a bit suspect.

Mighty Joe Young isn’t a bad film and the effects were fun, but it comes off as sappy, especially when compared to the masterpiece. It felt targeted more for children. AMRU 2.5. In lieu of a good quote, I’ll leave you with one of Terry’s:
“I hate silicone, because now everyone can have what I have.”

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

A big time operator (Sam Jaffe) is released from prison and has a plan for a big score. He seeks out a money guy to finance the heist to hire a box man (safe cracker), a driver (James Whitmore), and a thug (Sterling Hayden).

Our money guy (Louis Calhern) has been in a fair number of decent movies. I’m sure our paths will cross again. He was also in a Jungle of the Blackboard variety. Here, his piece on the side is a cusp of famous Marilyn Monroe. She was quite good in the small role.

Even outside the presence of Sterling Hayden, this film bears a strong resemblance to The Killing. Big, complex heist, recruitment of people, complications and double-crossing, then things fall apart. That’s not a spoiler. Bad guys didn’t get away in the 50’s. Between the two, I prefer The Killing. The heist itself was more interesting and I like Hayden in the Boss role. Here he was a hooligan on the spectrum. Jean Hagen (Singin’ in the Rain) played his Doll.

Modern life once again has crept into this historical document. In the interest of law and order, the police chief advocates roughing up suspects and victims alike. When a cop is discovered to be a ‘bad apple’, he monologues how cops, good and bad, are necessary to fight this existential threat that is crime. It was quite strident and very close to the zeitgeist of the day. This isn’t a commentary on the present situation. Law enforcement was extremely different in 1950 and a very complex topic. It was simply a thing that made me go “huh”.

Another theme was the creepy old man. The older Calhern shacking up with the hot Monroe ("young enough to be his granddaughter") is derisively viewed by the police. Another character stares creepily at a teenage girl while she dances. That was borderline uncomfortable. I looked it up. She was twenty during filming. We’re cool. I believe the point was to keep the audience from sympathizing with the criminals too much.

The Asphalt Jungle is an entertaining heist film. It is interesting how 50’s noir has a distinctly different feel than the earlier ones. They feel more grounded in the real world. John Huston’s Maltese Falcon is a landmark in the genre and very different in tone. He would deconstruct the genre, with dubious success, three years later with Beat the Devil, and appear in, but not direct, a landmark of neo-noir with Chinatown. AMRU 4.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978)

Tomatoes, the garden variety kind, start killing people. Let me stop you right there. You’ve already thought about this film more than it deserves.

Super low budget film made by complete amateurs. Most principles involved have few other credits, and mostly ones that feature murderous produce. A popular cult film, I likely saw it in the 80’s but remembered little. I remembered giant tomatoes, dumb jokes, and bad acting. Well, maybe I did remember something. There really is little else here.

An early scene shows a helicopter crash that clearly was unintentional. Apparently, the loss of the rental cost about two thirds of the film’s entire budget. Good thing they got the shot. The actors improvised dialog while pulling the pilot to safety. Yikes!

In the subgenre of low budget dumb comedy, think what was the lowest budget and dumbest comedy you ever saw. Now know that Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is it’s king. The jokes include a Japanese character (being clumsily dubbed ala Godzilla, of course) knocks a picture of the USS Arizona into an aquarium. Or a paratrooper who spends the entire movie running around in his jumpsuit with his chute out. Pop culture references standing in as jokes, and silliness for silliness’ sake. I mean, the main character is named Mason Dixon.

Based on a short film, I think the filmmakers were trying to channel the spirit of films like the much higher budgeted and professionally made Rocky Horror Picture Show. Here's an interesting fact: the terrible music in the film was performed by a teenaged Matt Cameron of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam fame. That's all I got for trivia.

I found Attack of the Killer Tomatoes hard to watch. None of it was funny, clever, or particularly interesting. It tried hard to be ridiculous rather than coming by it honestly. No point of view, no commentary on current events, just mindless foolishness. That said, my son liked it. AMRU 2.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Black Legion (1937)

Frank (Humphrey Bogart) loses out on a promotion to a polish immigrant just because, and get this, he is smart and hard working. Go figure! Frank is fed up and learns about this secret club called the Black Legion where hard working Americans fight back against this sort of thing! Racism is bad, hmmm kay!

The Black Legion (the club, not the movie) is a thinly disguised version of the Ku Klux Klan. The actual klan, in fact, sued the studio. Not for defamation of character, but for use of their symbols. Gotta have priorities. The Legion’s crimes are quite extreme. They kidnap and flog people, or burn down their house and run them out of town. If they burned crosses, maybe the Klan’s suit would have gone someplace.

Dick Foran played Frank's good friend who tries to lead him straight. He had a long career in many westerns, but I remember him from Bogart's Petrified Forest and a couple mummy films. Hottie Ann Sheridan has an early, small role. She would stand out in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

The Black Legion (the movie, not the club) is a little heavy handed with the message. Good people are all good, bad people are all bad, and Bogart’s Frank is the good guy led astray. I am curious how effective this kind of message worked during the era. In reality things are more complicated, and a message rejected outright by the audience that needs it most is of little value. But this is movies, not reality. And as a movie, it was meh. Bogart always raises the level of everything he is in. AMRU 2.5.

Black lives matter, our society does not value them equally, and that is wrong.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)

A clean cut teen couple, after making out in a car parked on a local farm, accidentally hits a space alien. The cops dismiss the alcohol-soaked kid’s story and the Air Force tries to cover up the flying “saucer”.

Initially intended as a straight sci-fi, they added comedic music and cool daddy-o dialog in an attempt to garner the ha-ha’s as well. This worked out about as well as expected. It’s a problem that we never get a good look at the Morbo-inspired aliens and the so-called saucer better resembles the bat mobile. Speaking of which, Frank Gorshin of Riddler fame plays a drifter trying to profit off of the LGMs. He may have been the best part of the film.

These low-budget, straight to drive-in films are a guilty pleasure of mine. I gave sub-3 scores to a couple I watched recently but truth be told, I enjoyed them. They are dumb, poorly acted, and sometimes racist, but I love them. The problem here is that the attempt at humor undercut any tension making the film pretty much pointless. There is little story outside of “Look! Aliens!” and they spent time introducing the Air Force characters to only stick in front of the ship with the direction “Act silly”. This doesn’t work.

I’m giving this thing only a half point lower than the others, but the difference in enjoyment is vast. The comedy isn’t funny, the aliens aren’t scary, and most damningly, the movie isn’t interesting. AMRU 2.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

My Fair Lady (1964)

A cockney flower girl (Audrey Hepburn) overhears a linguistics professor (Rex Harrison) boast he could teach her to speak proper enough English to work in a regular flower shop. The following day she arrives at his home to take him up on the offer. He bets his colleague that in six months he could pass her off as a lady at a royal ball. The game is afoot.

Audrey Hepburn was charming as hell, but wow was she miscast. I don’t believe her for a second as a cockney. Harrison reprised his role from the Broadway musical but the studio felt Julie Andrews was too much of an unknown to play Eliza on the big screen, which wasn’t wrong. Even if asked, she was busy working on her first feature film. One complaint about the 35 year old Hepburn was that she was too old for the role. Again, not wrong as Eliza was twenty one. Nobody seemed to bat an eye, however, at the borderline elderly Harrison as the leading man. Ah, Hollywood!

At two hours fifty, My Fair Lady wasn’t too much of a chore to sit through. The only parts that dragged were the songs. I recognized some not realizing where they were from. Not being my thing, cutting ninety seconds from each song might be a good way to take ten or so minutes from the runtime.

In the end I was charmed by My Fair Lady. That’s not to say I don’t have my issues. Harrison’s Professor Higgins has no character arc. He starts as a pompous, self important ass and ends the same but “accustomed to her face”. Can you think of anything less romantic? The story is about social mobility. Eliza Doolittle is a misfit and knows it. This bothers her, but our professor is also a social outcast and is oblivious. His wealth, education, and position forgive his lack of social grace. He treats people poorly and doesn’t understand why that’s a problem.

The story in my head is of Eliza realizing she need not covet the respect of the idle rich and come to accept who she is. She needs diction but it’s Higgins who requires the personal growth. But that is not our story and it’s no use criticizing a film for its source material. But I still chafe at a young woman returning to the embrace of a jerk for him to treat poorly. Besides, Colonel Pickering seemed to be his true love.

My Fair Lady was a fantastic success. A big production movie with some genuinely good moments. It made a ton of money and earned eight Oscars, including best picture. Not for best actress, though. That went to Julie Andrews. AMRU 3.5.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Upon his return from the Crusades, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is greeted by Death. Unafraid to die, he challenges Death to a game of chess to give him time to find answers. The game is played over several days while Block questions his faith and meets up with other travelers on his way home. Plague has ravaged the countryside and Death’s influence is everywhere.

With someone with the art house/film school reputation of Bergman, I find it surprising how lighthearted much of his films are. Surely there are themes that warrant extended thought and discussion, but The Seventh Seal, like Wild Strawberries, is very watchable. His squire, the travelling performers, the unfaithful wife, the jealous husband, all serve both as comic relief and as foils to our dour Crusader. Block, unlike his companions, needs answers. Answers that even Death himself cannot give.

Also surprising is how low budget the film appears. The period costumes have the reductive appearance of quickly made cosplay garb and the sets were almost nonexistent. Still, this does not detract from the narrative. In fact it lends to the desolate feel of the film.

Younger viewers will remember von Sydow as the Three Eyed Raven and older viewers will remember him as the old priest in The Exorcist, but he appeared in a ton of stuff. Seriously, look him up. His CV is amazing.

At once haunting and comical, simple yet enigmatic, The Seventh Seal (a reference to the book of Revelations) almost demands a second watch and discussion with friends. Had I any that's exactly what I would do. AMRU 4.