Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Awful Truth (1937)

Jerry (Cary Grant) returns from a business trip in “Florida”, only he wasn’t really in Florida. With friends in attendance, he discovers that his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) isn’t home. It seems her car broke down and she had to spend the night at her swarthy singing instructor’s house. All perfectly innocent, except neither are too sure. After an argument, they agree to get a divorce, because that’s what you do. During the required waiting period, Lucy starts a relationship with big lunk Daniel (Ralph Bellamy) but Jerry can’t seem to stop bumping into them.

Classic Hollywood screwball comedy. Nobody does anything untoward but it’s hinted at quite a bit. I can complain and say The Awful Truth was overly formulaic. The ending was forced and it bore more than a passing resemblance to My Favorite Wife, made three years later with Randolph Scott in the Ralph Bellamy role. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used many of the same sets. But I think I’m experiencing rom-com fatigue.

There were some amusing scenes and overall it did its job, and this was the era when directors won Oscars for such films. It’s no coincidence that the earlier rom-coms I saw are rated higher and I may need to back off of them for a while. Unfortunately, I have one more sitting on the DVR. I’ll find something refreshing to watch before I see it. AMRU 3.

“They forgot to touch second.”

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is an alcoholic. His brother and his pretty girlfriend (Jane Wyman) try to help him, but when he is left to his own devices with a ten-spot, things go bad.

What does an alcoholic look like? Well, if you are in most movies of the 30’s to the 50’s, they were funny, harmless, frequently wore top hats, hiccuped a lot, and occasionally saw pink elephants. In The Lost Weekend, as in real life, they are well-intentioned, self destructive, rationalizing, and tragic. Also, not nearly as amusing as you’ve been led to believe.

This is my first film starring Jane Wyman I’ve seen. She was Mrs. Ronald Reagan at this time, but that wouldn’t last long. Ray Milland, having done a string of light comedies, wasn’t considered by many to be star material for an A picture, but the studio insisted. Milland, doubting himself, prepared by spending a night inside Bellevue Hospital. He would earn an Oscar. I was certain I had seen him in something else, but I don’t know what. Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay as an exploration of the life of Raymond Chandler after working with him on Double Indemnity. Chandler had an interesting relationship with the spirits.

The Lost Weekend is something of a departure for Billy Wilder. Not a comedy, and while it’s billed as Film-Noir, I don’t see it. It is a fascinating exploration of a tragic personality. Don means well but his demons intervene. If alcoholism has touched your family then this story will ring true. AMRU 4.
“We're both trying, Don. You're trying not to drink, and I'm trying not to love you.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Touch of Evil (1958)

A car carrying a rich old man and his hot young girlfriend, driving over the US-Mexican border, blows up killing them both. On the scene is Vargas (Charlton Heston), an educated, politically connected (totally non-rapist) Mexican police detective. He works with fat, sloppy American police captain Quinlan (Orson Welles) to solve the murder. At this time his hot anglo wife (Janet Leigh) starts being harassed by family members of the people Vargas has been prosecuting. Things get complicated.

This movie could be about finding the bomber, or about the crime family tormenting the hot Leigh, but it’s really about the culture clash between two nations so close to each other, and the prejudice that permeates their relationship. Quinlan is suspicious of Mexicans and disrespects Vargas, the Mexican crime family has a complicated relationship with America, and the Vargas’ themselves are torn between both worlds. All this in the late 50’s.

Heston agreed to the role because he thought Welles was going to direct. When he found out that the director hadn’t been selected yet, he insisted on Welles, and the studio agreed. It was Welles’ presence that also convinced Leigh to accept the roll, despite the low pay.

Upon completion the studio chopped up the film in editing. Welles was upset, and wrote a 58 page letter to the studio head. The version I saw was a recreation of Welles’ original vision, as can be determined from his letter.

The movie features Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, McCloud) in an early role. Zsa Zsa earned a bit part by being the producer’s boyfriend. Marlene Dietrich had a small but important role, and if you blinked you’d miss Welles buddy Joseph Cotten’s cameo.

Touch of Evil is a brave film, confronting racism head on. It’ll be remembered as having a Mexican played by Red Blooded, US ‘Merican Charlton Heston with a US ‘Merican accent, but its message that citizens on both sides of the border can be despicable and honorable alike may have been lost otherwise. The difference between art and craft is that craft needs to know we are ready to accept change while art tells us we must. The problem with putting minorities in lead roles is that studios want established stars, and until there is a large pool of established leading man minorities, it is hard to get the studio on board with hiring them. Catch-22. Maybe, in some small way, Touch of Evil slightly acclimated 50’s audiences to considering a lead minority. Either way, putting an unknown Mexican in the lead may have resulted in the film not being made, or at least not seen very much. At any rate, I find it easy to forgive the whitewash casting because of the its progressive message. AMRU 4.
“She don’t look Mexican either.”

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

Milo, a bored rich kid, sits on the phone talking about how bored he is with his bored friend, when he notices a giant present for him in the other room. He pulls a lever and it turns into a tollbooth. With nothing better to do, he climbs into a toy car and drives into an animated world of adventure.

There he learns how the kingdom of letters (Dictionopolis) is feuding with the kingdom of numbers (Digitopolis), He travels to the Castle in the Air to rescue the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason. Along the way he meets a watchdog named Tick Tock, a “Whether” Man, a Spelling Bee, Faintly Macabre the “Which”, and a Mathemagician. Get the theme here?

Butch Patrick, you know, Eddie Munster, plays young Milo. The animated world contains a who’s who of 50’s and 60’s voice over actors, including Daws Butler, Hans Conried, June Foray, and of course Mel Blanc.

Finally Chuck Jones got the chance to do a feature film, and because of studio financial troubles it took forever to be released and wasn’t promoted. It’s no surprise that it wasn’t a success. He never got another opportunity.

The Phantom Tollbooth combines life lessons, amusing wordplay, and adventure. Maybe it has so many elements that it becomes muddled. Various characters and situations would benefit from more development and screen time. I can imagine a half hour TV series exploring every nook and cranny of this imaginative world. A big Chuck Jones fan, I was very happy to find this film, and enjoyed it. But maybe from high expectations, or from troubled production, I’m left feeling it falls short of great. AMRU 3.5.
“Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Catch-22 (1970)

Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) wants to be grounded so he tells the doctor that he is crazy. But by asking to be grounded he is proving that he is sane, as only a crazy person would want to continue flying dangerous missions. The other pilots are crazy because they want to fly, but they can't be grounded because they won't ask. But if they do, Catch-22.

Based on the Joseph Heller novel and as I understand, a fairly faithful rendition. I took my son's word. Reading books is hard. That's why I watch. The story is non-linear and must be watched to the end for it to make any sense. the screenplay was written by Buck Henry, who also wrote Mike Nichols' The Graduate. Again, I'll say it. So THAT'S why SNL kept having him appear.

Catch-22 is chuck full of familiar character actors. Bob Newhart, Jack Gilford, Norman Fell, Richard Benjamin, and even Art Garfunkel. Future heavies Martin Sheen and Jon Voight, plus heavy has-been Orson Welles. The first cinematic display of someone on a toilet included Martin Balsam (12 angry men, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and this episode of The Twilight Zone I just saw) and Anthony Perkins. The first time a toilet was shown was in Psycho, which also featured both men.

Because of it's very nature, the story cannot be described. There is an absurd, dreamlike quality, and the audience is forced to pay close attention to make sense of it all. Frequently background noise drowns out the dialog, but that's purely intentional. This is not a movie for everybody, but it was definitely a movie for me. AMRU 4. Arkin may be this country's greatest character actor.
"Whoo... That's some catch, that Catch-22.
It's the best there is."

Monday, May 2, 2016

Safety Last! (1923)

A young man (Harold Lloyd) goes to the big city to become successful enough to marry his sweetheart. Things don't go as planned, but he tries to keep up appearances. Then become complicated when sweetheart travels to the city to visits him at work. So, he climbs the building to make some extra cash. You know the scene where he hangs from a clock face. It's real famous.

As a kid I was told Lloyd actually performed these stunts on the building, with eight fingers (two were blown off a few years earlier), without a stuntman. Well, turns out, not so much. A stunt man was used, and Lloyd wasn't nearly as far off the ground as it seemed. The bricks were modified to give him a solid grip. The stunt man didn't spill the beans until Lloyd died. Also, he didn't want to diminish the real danger of the stunts.

Lloyd would marry his almost 22 year old co-star two months before the film's April fools day release. He discouraged her from continuing her career shortly thereafter.

Safety Last! has some fairly clever visual gags and the wall climbing in the third act holds your interest, however the film is sometimes tedious despite the 70 minute run time. This is one of about a billion silent comedies Hal Roach has his name on. He is credited as "Presenter" and writer, and uncredited as producer.

Paper-thin story, tired comedy mixed in with some better bits, capped off by cool stunts in the third act, and you have a very watchable film. AMRU 3.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wait Until Dark (1967)

A woman, trafficking drugs inside a child's doll, gives it to an unsuspecting man to hold at the airport. When she later asks for the doll back, he can't find it. While the man is out, three criminals try to shake down his blind wife (Audrey Hepburn) for the doll.

Audrey Hepburn plays the Audrey Hepburn character, only pushing 40 this time. Efrem Zimbalist Jr played her husband. Folks might remember him from The FBI (in color!) Or as Stephanie Zimbalist's father. Or maybe not at all. Zimbalist sounds like the guy who plays the zimbals. Hate that guy.

Hepburn got the Oscar nomination, but the real story is American hero Alan Arkin as Evil Ringo. He is truly diabolical as he coerces the other two criminals to assist recovering the doll. Arkin, then a two-time Oscar nominee, was asked if he felt overlooked for this part. He replied "You don't get nominated for being mean to Audrey Hepburn!" It'll be almost forty years before he wins. We will be seeing him again soon.

The movie was produced by Hepburn's then husband, who then divorced her. I don't think there was a connection. Richard Crenna (you know, from the earlier Rambo movies) was interesting in an early role. He was older than I thought he was, pushing 60 come Rambo. Here is before he started wearing the porn stache.

Wait Until Dark isn't without its flaws. All problems could have been avoided if they'd just lock their damn door. And what apartment doesn't have a back exit? That can't be to code. Also, the criminals plot was overly elaborate. They put on disguises for a blind lady, then they use their real names. And there are more, but what's the point.

Despite its flaws, Wait Until Dark is an excellent thriller. There are some real thrilling moments and your attention is never released. AMRU 3.5.
"I cannot negotiate in an atmosphere of mistrust."