Saturday, December 16, 2017

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

After discovering her Thanksgivings Day Parade Santa is drunk, pretty Doris (Maureen O’Hara) hires a spectator who looks the part. He does such a good job that he is hired by Macy’s to be their regular store Santa. But rather than talk children into Macy’s overstock product, he refers them to competitors to get the exact toy they want. Initially this goes over poorly with management until it becomes a public relations boon. Things get complicated when they realize that Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) actually believes himself to be Santa. Like, for real!

So, the objects in play are the stern realist Doris with a precocious daughter (Natalie Wood). They have little time for such fantasies like Santa. Also, the neighbor Fred who wants to know Doris a little better, nudge nudge. He also happens to be a lawyer, which will come in handy later. Macy’s has a psychiatrist who thinks Kris Kringle ought to be locked up. Finally there is R.H. Macy himself who wants to keep the goodwill train rolling, and heads will roll if it doesn’t. They couldn’t get the real R.H. Macy to play the part because he’d been dead seventy years before filming began. It’s been another seventy years since so you can see how long the “Christmas is so commercialized nowadays” mantra has been going.

Gene Lockhart, whom I saw most recently as Bob Cratchit, is the judge caught in the position of determining Santa's sanity. Here also is Thelma Ritter’s first role. Also is possibly Jack Albertson’s first screen role. He was Charlie’s granddad but I remember him most from television.

Macy's and Gimbel's department stores play a significant part in the film. They agreed to have their names used only if they liked the finished product. This means if either one vetoed, significant parts would have to be reshot. As such, many of the references to the stores were cut-aways. Fortunately, both parties liked the movie and it was released in time for ... summer solstice? What the hell, people ...

Miracle on 34th Street is a charming film that holds up very well. That is, if you overlook the ‘frigid woman must learn to love so she can catch a man’ angle. Also, the part about the little girl being left in the care of a 30-something stranger living next door. Yea, that wouldn’t fly today. But apart from that, it still hits all the right notes. Edmund Gwenn (remember him from Them!) is the best Santa analog we can hope for, Maureen O’Hara is a wonderfully charming ice queen, and Natalie Wood basically steals the show. Few child actors were as impactful as she was here. AMRU 4.
“The DA's a Republican”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Onibaba (1964)

A young woman and her mother-in-law, waiting for the return of their husband/son, survive in war-torn medieval Japan by killing soldiers and selling their armor. After learning from a neighbor that he has been killed, the neighbor takes an interest in the young widow. Mother-in-law disapproves.

Onibaba is a film about jealousy and manipulation. It is frequently put into the genres of fantasy and horror, but I feel it defies categorization. It’s a simple story (essentially just three characters) with a strange, fantasy-like tone. A scary mask is involved but I resist giving too much away. The three characters relationship, and that of the dead man, are slowly revealed as the story unfolds.

Interesting tone, abrupt and ambiguous ending, Onibaba (which means Demon Hag or Devil Woman), is simple in story and complex in content. It’s a film that’s difficult to talk too much about, lest we go down a rabbit hole. AMRU 4.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Move Over, Darling (1963)

Five years after the death of Nick’s (James Garner) wife Ellen (Doris Day), he marries Bianca (Polly Bergen). Everything is all well and good until Ellen returns from the dead to foul things up.

This was the studio’s second attempt to remake the 1940 Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film. Notoriously they tried filming with Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, and Cyd Charisse when Monroe’s erratic behavior caused serious delays that the studio could not tolerate. Then she died. They had about a third of the film in the can before shutting everything down. Here is attempt two with a completely new cast, new title, and a modified script.

Lots of studio contract actors to be seen here. First is Thelma Ritter, whom old friends will remember from Rear Window and All About Eve. Our disgruntled hotel manager today is Fred Clark, who I’ve seen in Sunset Blvd and surprisingly nothing else. He also did a lot of television. Also here is John Astin (you know, Sean’s dad), and Don Knotts who was a TV staple for me growing up. Speaking of TV, Schneider had a small role.

There is something about Doris Day’s body language. She is so wonderfully expressive and you can’t take your eyes off of her. Several years older and never the sex kitten Marilyn was, she was nevertheless much more relatable. I did watch the 37 minutes of Something’s Got to Give edited to a final film as much as possible. While it’s impossible to judge what a completed version would have been, it seemed like I was watching an overall crappier version of the exact same movie. While Marilyn certainly had her charm, she was miscast as a loving mother/sexpot and her acting talent could not hold a candle to Day.

Move Over, Darling is a fine romantic comedy. If I were to criticize it, I’d say it could have been funnier. Also, the entire situation could have been resolved if Nick just told Bianca about Ellen’s return. And I didn’t buy that James Garner would be too timid. Not Jim Rockford. Also, the premise that the marriage would not be consummated until the honeymoon may have been plausible back in 1963, but it was head scratching today.

Slightly better than the original but brings nothing new to the table. Pleasant and easy to watch. AMRU 3.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ghost Story (1981)

Four old rich men, friends since college, get together to tell each other ghost stories. When one of their sons dies mysteriously in a horrible green-screen effect, his brother tries to unravel the mystery. Spoiler alert: ghosts are involved.

This film is famous for bringing together four stars of classic Hollywood in what was the final film appearance of three of them. Fred Astaire was a Hollywood legend who revived the musical genre in the 1930’s, Melvyn Douglas has a huge and diverse body of work, John Houseman was famous for being John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, was famous for being the son of Douglas Fairbanks.

Legend more to my liking Patricia Neal had a supporting role. Old friends will remember her from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She didn’t appear in many feature films but I will see her again. Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from First Contact, plays the spoiler alert role. Over the decades she has appeared in a whole pile of stuff that I’m utterly unfamiliar with.

During the climax, with four minutes left on the film, just before the big reveal, the public library DVD failed. Amazon Prime to the rescue. It was free with membership all along.

Ghost Story is a peculiar film. Every scene is a mystery for the viewer to figure out. Awkward dialog, overt sexuality, oppressive score, oddly expressive lighting, and an overall style that had an early-80’s artsy-trippy feel. I found it somewhat reminiscent of the much worse Cat People (1982). Both were films that would make a little more sense on a second viewing, but neither will get that opportunity. AMRU 2.5.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cape Fear (1962)

After eight years, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is released from prison. His first order of business, well his only order of business, is to punish the man responsible for his conviction, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), an attorney who testified against him.

Peck and Mitchum make for an interesting contrast of styles. About the same age (Peck was 16 months older), started in acting about the same time (1944 and 1943 respectively), both ruggedly handsome leading men. Peck, however, was a more traditional leading man with a slightly more illustrious body of work, if quite a bit shorter. Mitchum, on the other hand, played more morally ambiguous characters in more unconventional films. To me, Peck seemed to be from an earlier era. Maybe because of style, or maybe because Peck’s major film roles ended in the 1970’s while Mitchum continued into the 90’s.

Old friend Martin Balsam is the police chief. There is a scene where cops ascend a staircase that resembles quite closely the one in the Bates’ homestead, but Marty isn’t with them. Kojack himself Telly Savalas has a sizable role. I know he’s been in a fair number of notable movies, but I had never seen him in anything except his TV series. No, who loves YOU, baby.

A couple things annoyed me here. First is how much the cops harassed poor Max. Sam and family are appropriately alarmed by Max’s behavior, but he doesn’t break any laws. So the cops interrogate him at every opportunity and try to run him out of town. Total civil rights violations by the protagonists. Another thing was that nobody closes the goddamn doors. I think a lot of problems could have been easily avoided.

Cape Fear is a better than fair horror film. Max is a smart and unrelenting monster. But maybe because of its reputation I was a little disappointed. Also some of the acting performances were painfully terrible (I’m looking at you, Barrie Chase!) and little about how the story plays out will surprise anyone. Still, it's a good watch. And Mitchum's performance is quite impressive. AMRU 3.5.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Zombies on Broadway (1945)

Two men hired to promote a new nightclub owned by a gangster promise a zombie for opening night. Gangster forces them to produce a real one so that he is not embarrassed. Gangsters can be so sensitive. So, our comedic duo journey forth to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian. Tropical hijinks and sad stereotypes ensue.

The comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney were a poor man’s Abbott and Costello act. They did eleven films together, about half using the same character names as here. Afterwords they both went on to do television, but not together as far as I can tell.

Bela Lugosi played the evil scientist character in the spooky mansion. Past sixty, he still displayed a fair level of physicality. With his Universal features behind him, he took just about every acting job offered. Becoming a parody of himself, he effectively weakened his brand and hurt his reputation in Hollywood. Please take note Nic Cage. Old friend Ian Wolfe appears as a museum curator. I believe this makes eight films. Our ingenue this evening was pretty Anne Jeffreys, who has fairly little to do in the film. She performs a musical number, catches Wally’s eye, and gets captured. She appeared to have some acting chops, not that this was the venue to display them. She had played Tess Trueheart in Dick Tracy. Her movie career never approached A list level and went on to do a steaming pile of television. She passed away just this past September.

Zombies had a few more things in common with I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Both are set on the same fictitious Caribbean island. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot and head zombie Darby Jones all but recreated their earlier roles. Darby (and others turned zombie) wore prosthetic bugged out eyes. The effect was actually quite effective.

Zombies on Broadway wasn’t even as amusing and entertaining as the title suggests. At no moment did I giggle, even the slightest. The frady Abbott and Costello bits were tedious at best and insulting at worst. 1945 was far too late in the game for blackface to be either clever or funny, but there we have it. I also felt sorry for the black extras who had to dress as “natives” and jump around. At least they had work. AMRU 2.
“A great scientist. Yes, some people say he is crazy. I don't think he is crazy... well, ah, not very crazy, anyway.”

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Radio big mouth Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope) angers a mobster who asks to meet him at his hotel. When Larry visits, he witnesses an unrelated mob hit and mistakenly believes he killed the guy. He hides in the apartment of pretty Mary (Paulette Goddard) who inherited a spooky mansion on an island off of Cuba. Hiding in her luggage, they set sail.

Pretty Mary also has a back story. Spooky mansion is haunted and people say her life is in danger if she goes there. A man tried to warn her but was killed outside her apartment in a related mob hit. Larry likes pretty Mary so he decides to help her.

Playing Larry’s man servant is veteran racial stereotype Willie Best. I have seen him (and barely remember him) in the abomination General Spanky (1936) and the eminently forgettable The Monster Walks (1932). Speaking of minorities being allowed minor roles, Zorba the Mexican himself Anthony Quinn makes two brief appearances.

Somewhat similar to its predecessor The Cat and the Canary (1939), which I rewatched just prior, it pales somewhat in comparison in a couple ways. Primarily there were too many characters. It is not uncommon to introduce many possible suspects early in a film but they became hard to track. Also, red herring suspects are not a substitute for a good story. There are many story elements at play here, but the actual story is rather simple. The elements at best are a distraction.

But this is not to say The Ghost Breakers is a bad movie. It’s ok. Hope is as amusing as he was prior and Goddard just as charming. The pointless running around the haunted mansion seemed gratuitous, but in the end the film served its purpose. Bob and Paulette didn’t do any more films together probably because Hope already started his Road Movies with Bing. I like The Can and Canary better, but I liked this better than Road to Singapore. AMRU 3.
“Oh, you look like a black out in a blackout. This keeps up, I'm gonna have to paint you white.”