Saturday, April 14, 2018

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Mr. Big carefully plans a bank heist, recruiting three desperate criminals (Jack Elam, Neville Brand, and Lee Van Cleef) to do the heavy lifting. They all wear masks so that no one can rat out the others. They each carry a torn King playing card as identification. Things go well except that an ex-con (John Payne) takes the fall and his life is in tatters. He goes looking for the men who set him up.

Film-Noir of the 50’s was much grittier than the more stylistic films of the 40’s. Here no femme fatal, no European director, and no Bogart-esque dialog. Not as much, anyhow. Jack Elam is the crazy-eyed character actor from so many westerns. Here as a young man he was quirky and amusing. Lee Van Cleef is best remembered as the Bad, with his buddies Good and Ugly. Still have to see that film. Our hunky hero Payne was the romantic lead in Miracle on 34th Street. He eked out a better than fair career with such roles.

With the exception of the heist and immediate aftermath, very little of the film is set in Kansas City. In fact with the exception of the opening establishing shot of the city (likely taken from stock footage) not a single frame was shot there.

Clearly not a high budget production. In one scene our hero is walking near some fake shrubbery when it moves before he reaches it. I backed up the film and rewatched and realized that the camera man must have brushed by them. This happened a second time later in the film. The filmmakers failed to renew the copyright and it lapsed into the public domain. Lucky for me because my DVR choked for three minutes and I missed a critical scene. I paused, jumped into YouTube, and watched the section before continuing. Ah, technology.

Maybe not very high on my favorites for Noir but Kansas City Confidential is still quite enjoyable. The end provided a nice twist and it will withstand rewatching. AMRU 3.5.
“It don't take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain't in this bananaville on a vacation!”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Ball of Fire (1941)

Nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) must hide out until the heat is off her gangster boyfriend (Dana Andrews). She stumbles upon a group of professors (NNNNNERRRRRDSSSSS!!) working on an encyclopedia, and they want her help studying modern slang. The cops would never think to look for her there. Will love bloom?

Much of the story makes no sense but it doesn’t matter. It is just a framework for the fish out of water to fall in love with the head nerd … I mean professor (Gary Cooper). The seven other professors are modeled after the seven dwarfs, presumably with Stanwyck as Snow White and Cooper as the prince. Billy Wilder wrote the story prior to the release of the Disney movie and in one shot a marquee can be seen showing the Disney flick.

Because the plot revolves around our nerds … I mean professors trying to learn modern slang, the dialog is chuck full of exaggerated or completely made up terms, sounding silly or awkward. This is to heighten the sense of the other fish being out of the other water. Unfortunately our two leads didn’t show much on-screen chemistry. Maybe because their characters were from such different universes or maybe because Cooper acts with all the panache of an uncooked potato. Plus, the 40ish never-been-kissed Cooper looked old enough to be 34ish year old Stanwyck’s dad.

Some prolific character actors make up the the seven dwarfs, most notably S.Z. Sakall from Casablanca and most recently Christmas in Connecticut. Also here is the prolific Charles Lane, whose career spanned from the early 30’s until the mid 90’s. If ever you needed a grumpy lawyer, he was your man. His docket is even longer than Ian Wolf’s, whom I detailed recently. Between the two they appeared in almost 700 movies and TV shows, with only a half dozen titles in common, maybe because they played similar character types.

I wanted to like this film a bit more but I simply didn’t buy either character actually falling for the other. There were funny parts and Stanwyck was as charming as ever, but I have yet to see Cooper in something I liked. That said, mom would have enjoyed it. AMRU 3.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Blade Runner (1982)

It’s 2019 and replicants (you know, andys) are used as slave labor on off-world colonies. Six escaped during an uprising and head to earth. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought out of his retirement to retire them. With a gun. He retires them by shooting them.

Way back in 1982 a fifteen year old me saw Blade Runner in theaters. Somewhat impressed, it somewhat stuck with me. Though I wanted to see it again, especially after the new cuts came out, I never did. When a historic theater presented the Final Cut, I collected my boys and had a night out. Wow, what a difference thirty-five years makes.

I don’t know if it was intentional by Ridley Scott or a problem with theater’s audio equipment, but the rain and trippy-ass soundtrack drowned out the dialog, making it hard to follow the story. I don’t know if that mattered much in the end. It’s not really a dialog-driven film, but still.

There are quite a few versions of Blade Runner floating around. The initial US release was severely tampered with by the studio to make more sense to a dim-witted US audience (a dim-witted fifteen year old me appreciated it), and then were different edits for various releases around the world. Scott’s original edit was found in the ‘90s and erroneously called the director’s cut. Back in aught seven Scott made a real director’s cut and is considered the definitive version.

Blade Runner is an immerse experience. Not all details of this world are explained onscreen and it would have been a terrible idea had they tried. The principle question it asks is what does it mean to be human. That's not as straight forward as it might seem as Deckard meets a replicant (Sean Young) that does not know what she is. And we have reason to believe Deckard himself may also be a replicant.

The case for this is somewhat tenuous. Deckard has a unicorn flashback and Gaff makes an origami unicorn to apparently tease him, implying it’s an implanted memory. Others have theorized that the Unicorn represents the replicants: real but not real. Director Ridley Scott was vague and mysterious about the question saying “He is definitely a replicant”, so take that for what it’s worth. I haven't seen 2049 yet, so NO SPOILERS!

The Blade Runner world is amazing. Expansive, expressive, familiar but not really. Neo-noir at it’s finest. It just may find its way into my library. AMRU 4.5.
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.”

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Rings on her Fingers (1942)

A pretty shop girl (Gene Tierney) is enticed into working for a pair of con artists. She uses her womanly wiles to lure rich prey into their traps. One such is millionaire John Wheeler (Henry Fonda) who is convinced to buy a boat that they don’t own. Turns out he’s really a working stiff and has lost his life savings. He only led on that he was rich because she was, gosh, just so pretty. Her con friends want her to move to a new mark but she’s actually in love.

It was strange to see Tierney in the Barbara Stanwyck-esque role in what amounts to a slight retelling of the somewhat better Lady Eve, but she did a fine job. It was a departure for her and she was absolutely charming, as always. Fonda was basically the same character as in Eve.

Rings on her Fingers is a nice screwball comedy material, but nothing terribly original or surprising. Fonda and Tierney had good chemistry and I suppose that’s all that matters. The story clunked from time to time, but I think my mom would have liked it. AMRU 3.5.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

A crippled pianist is murdered after it is learned that his will was changed so that his nurse will inherit the bulk of his estate. As the will is being contested, it appears his disembodied hand is trying to kill again.

Creepy mansion? Check. Old time setting? Check. References to the occult? Check. The Beast with Five Fingers takes itself fairly seriously, even if its audience doesn’t. It’s a fairly atmospheric throw-away horror film that successfully gets the viewer an hour and a half older in a not unpleasant manner. The filmmakers wanted Paul Henreid (Casablanca) for a key role, but he wisely declined. Sources disagree what role he was to play but IMdB says Peter Lorre but I'm guessing it was the Robert Alda part.

Not too much to say. Some mystery, a love triangle, decent special effects for the day, and good atmosphere. Just don’t expect to be wow’d. AMRU 3.

Monday, January 15, 2018

42nd Street (1933)

Tried and overworked stage director Julian (Warner Baxter) decides, against his doctor’s recommendation, to produce one final show. It is financed by a creepy old rich Guy (Kibbee) on condition that the lead is given to the girl (Bebe Daniels), who has also agreed to touch his wiener for the honor. This is pre-code, mind you. Comedic mayhem ensues.

When sound movies became a thing, studios crammed as many musicals into theaters as possible, regardless of quality. By 1933, the genre was declared dead. Never-the-less, financially struggling Warner Brothers decided to produce 42nd Street, and it turned out to be a critical and financial success. Lucky thing for the Bro’s.

42nd Street resolves around the drama of getting the show on and the complication of our lead, her sugar daddy, and her actual boyfriend. It also featured ingenue Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in their first pairing. They would go on to star together in a string of light-hearted musical romantic comedies, like Gold Diggers of 1933. Dick would have a fairly long (57 feature films) Hollywood career and fairly short life (58 years). Ruby the opposite (14ish films, 83 years). 

Charming, amusing, and risque for its day, 42nd street is well worth watching. Ginger Rogers is charmingly amusing in a fairly small role. This is just prior to her pairing with Fred Astaire. AMRU 3.5.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

2017 Retrospective

Early in 2016 it occurred to me that I should be watching movies with my mom. My dad passed away just over a year prior and I wanted to keep her company. And she, unlike most people in my life, really liked old films. I bought her a blu-ray player and arrived almost every Friday with movie and dinner in hand. This became my favorite ritual. I wish I started a year earlier.

I focused on movies I thought she would like. She had no interest in westerns and war films. Horror was ok so long as they weren’t violent. But mostly she loved mysteries, especially Hitchcock and Sherlock Holmes. We watched many movies new to me and I had the opportunity to introduce her to films I loved. I treasure those times.

On December 30, sometime before noon, Lymphoma finally took my mother. In the almost four years since her (and my father’s) diagnosis, death has been a constant companion. We all know that the time we get is all we ever have, but we kid ourselves it will be a bit longer. I was determined to not leave things unsaid and feelings unexpressed, like I had with my father, but death is a hard thing to stare down. I did my best.

I quickly checked my blog of films we saw together and counted exactly 100. I know I missed a few, but I like that number. The last movie I saw in my childhood home was The Red Shoes (1948), the last new film for the blog was Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and the last overall was A Christmas Carol (1951), which we saw in a rehab facility just prior to going back into the VA. I thought maybe to host old films for residents of her elderly living facility but she wasn’t there long.

Death made his presence very apparent in late 2017. In late October I said goodbye to a childhood neighbor who was very much like an aunt. In November we said goodbye to my father in law’s cousin. And just before Thanksgiving, to my father in law. This holiday season has been very unkind.

I do not know why anyone would want to be a nurse, but thank god they do. I owe a huge thanks to so many people whose names I do not remember or never learned, at the VA and with Hospice. Cancer is a bitch and death leaves little room for dignity, but I have immense gratitude for the people who did their best to ease her and my family through this transition.

My mom led an active and interesting life, especially for someone from a small town in Texas. By her own account, a good life. She was proud of her military service, saw the world, and lived long enough to see her grandchildren grow into fine adults. She said she enjoyed every movie I brought, but I know we both thought Cat People (1982) was a stinker. I will think of her with every movie from this time forward and consider if she would have liked it. And every time I order hot wieners. Every holiday. Really, every day of my life. I will always miss you, mom.