Monday, May 11, 2015

Network (1976)

Howard Beal (Peter Finch) was once a respected name in TV news. But a string of personal set backs and slipping ratings placed him at a crossroads. After being told he was being fired, he announced on the air that in one week he would kill himself. When he spoke honestly and profanely in his later apology, and the rating were through the roof, a power struggle started to keep his "mad profit of the airways" act running for as long as possible.

Network is an amazingly prescient movie. A cautionary tale that caused the news media to look up and say "what a great idea!" If writer Paddy Chayefsky thought the industry was becoming sensationalized, well, he hadn't seen anything yet. And he almost hadn't. He would die of cancer five years later.

Jimmy Stewart was considered for a role? I presume the William Holden part, but really? I can't imagine him trying to charmingly bumble through Holden's cutting and profane dialog. That would have been a movie-killer. Finch's performance earned him an oscar but he would die before the ceremony. The first posthumous award.

Iconic, witty, wonderfully acted (four acting oscar nominations, and three wins), and overall excellent filmmaking. Faye Dunaway was fantastic. This movie will stay with me for a long while. AMRU 4.
"Why is it that a woman always thinks that the most savage thing she can say to a man is to impugn his cocksmanship."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Son of Kong (1933)

Promoter Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) discovers that being responsible for a giant ape going on a rampage in New York City raises some legal issues. Jeeze, it's been a month! Aren't they over that by now? He and his former captain decide to high-tail it out of Dodge to make their living on the high seas. At their first port of call they meet young hottie Hilda whose father was just murdered and wants to get away, as well as neer-do-well former captain Helstrom who also wants to get away because he just murdered someone. He convinces Denham to return to Kong Island with the old "But what about the treasure?" ruse. It totally works.

Fearing a repeat of their last visit, the crew abandons the above four people along with the Asian cook stereotype on the island. There they meet hostile natives (also not keen to repeat what happened last time) and prehistoric creatures (who have no opinion on the party, but were just hungry). Soon they discover that Kong had a son who was good-natured, twelve feet tall, and white. Read into that what you will. They rescue Sonny Kong from quicksand and in return he fights each stop-motion monster that comes their way. Denham and hottie continue looking for the treasure because they aren't too quick on the uptake.

Upon success of King Kong, the studio rushed the sequel into production. It was given half the budget (all of which went into the stop-motion effect) and hit the theaters by Christmas that
same year. While the special effects weren't a step back from the original, it most certainly was played for laughs. You totally get an Island of Misfit Toys vibe here.

Young Hottie Helen Mack continued to play the young hottie for as long as she was either one or the other. Asian cook stereotype Victor Wong made a career playing Asian stereotypes. Armstrong and Reicher both had long, productive careers but would only be remembered for their previous film.

Short, concise, and amusing. In many way not a worthy follow-up to the legendary original, and by no means a must-see, but you have to respect it for it's brevity (65-70 minutes). Tight in scope, it's the after dinner mint to the Kong banquet. Expect nothing more. AMRU 3.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Kongo (1932)

Deadlegs Flint (Walter Huston) has built an ivory poaching empire deep in the African jungle. But his ultimate goal isn't wealth. It's revenge. Revenge on the man who stole his wife and made him a cripple. But more than that, the man who sneered at him. Trouble is in store for everyone concerned.

Something of a remake of the Lon Chaney silent West of Zanzibar from four years earlier, or at least of the theatrical source material, Kongo is a dark, gritty drama that borders on Horror. There are more racist films, but none come to mind. You see, the Africans are primitive and childlike, and can easily be controlled with slight of hand tricks and sugar cubes. Of course, whitey doesn't come off too stellar either. Huston's Flint is truly terrible. He manipulates English and Africans alike. Even Portuguese. His physical portrayal was very convincing and Chaney-esque. I suppose now I have to see the original.

The center of the plot resolves around Flint's plan to punish his nemesis by disgracing the man's daughter (Virginia Bruce), whom he has captured. It's this daughter, mad from disease, torture, and brandy, as well as a stoned-off-his-ass doctor who happens upon the scene, who serve as the story's protagonists. Hot tamale Lupe Velez plays a mostly sympathetic character. She would go off herself twelve years later. And so it goes.

Very stylized acting typical of low-rent thrillers, Huston's performance was impressive never-the-less. It won't stand up against the best in the genre, but am glad I saw it. Not sure how I would feel if I was from Africa, however.
"Fuzzy got boom stick? Fuzzy keep two eyes on new white man all time. New white man come in, if he try go, fuzzy shoot, boom, kill. Fuzzy watch, all time."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Grease (1978)

Bad boy Danny has a summer fling with good girl Sandy, but things get awkward when she shows up at his high school for the senior year.

Many years ago I saw Grease in the theater (do the math) and while this wasn't exactly in my wheelhouse, I really enjoyed it. Recently at my son's Middle School talent show, the choir did a medley of Grease songs (the six boys were all lip syncing). I got a hankerin' to see the old flick, so a few days later I tied my three boys to chairs and had their eyes forced open ala Clockwork Orange, and cranked up the old Netflix. One of them liked it. Kinda.

A few observations. Vince Fontaine's hands were all over Marty Maraschino, not that I blame him much. She played Elaine on Soap. Nice to see old friend Joan Blondell in a small roll. Jeff Conaway was supposed to sing Greased Lightening, but Travolta pulled rank. At least he got to marry Olivia's big sister. For a little while.

Elvis, who was offered the part of the guardian angel, was referenced in Rizzo's Sandra D song. The original stage play referenced Sal Mineo (Rebel Without a Cause) but because he was murdered in 1976 they changed the line to reference Presley. The day the scene was filmed, Elvis died. And so it goes.

My boys had the same reaction to the big reveal as I did some 37 years earlier. We liked the before Sandy. The message seems because Danny couldn't NOT be a douchebag, she had to transform into a skank. That's quite depressing if you think about it.

There is no getting around it. Grease is a goofy-ass film. But the music is catchy, the performances spot on, and the choreography excellent. Despite any knocks I can give it, it's guaranteed to please. Well, one out of three boys, anyhow. AMRU 4.
"Peachy keen, jellybean."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Roman Holiday (1953)

Pretty, young, princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) grows tired of her regal routine while visiting Rome. Her doctor gives her something to help her sleep, but instead she sneaks out of the palace in a stupor. She is found sleeping on a park bench by a reporter (Gregory Peck) who does not recognize her. After trying to safely ditch her, she ends up sleeping on his couch. When he finds out who she is, he realizes he could make a fortune selling an exclusive story. So, he convinces her to go on holiday for the day. Love blooms.

This is the movie that introduced Audrey Hepburn to America, and boy howdy. Audrey was adorably charming and Peck was charmingly awkward as normal. Eddie Albert (Green Acres) had a nice comedic secondary role. Cary Grant was intended for the male lead, but he deemed himself too old for the part. Ten years later he would see his way clear.

I was a little confused why Peck's character, who was scheduled to interview this very famous princess, had no idea what she looked like. No biggie, though. We were caught up in the charming story. I had long wanted to hit the rom-com sub-genre, but they can be so vapid. Not that low-rent sci-fi is all that, but at least they offer a nice monster from time to time. But I've hit three smart, entertaining films in recent weeks. I'll hit a few more before I move on (currently there is a serial in the works), but really there is no end of them.

Many American productions shot in Europe have this "look how hip and interesting we are drinking cappuccino alfresco" vibe to them. The Pink Panther's, Charade recently, even Repulsion a bit. I did not get that here. Rome looked wonderful (filmed in black and white so that it doesn't overwhelm the story), but the cheese factor never came into play. Clever, charming, and satisfying. AMRU 4.
"Is this the elevator?"

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Two Strangers meet on a Train. One is a semi-famous tennis player, the other a semi-famous lunatic. Lunatic Bruno knows that tennis boy Guy Haines wants to divorce his troublesome wife so he can wed a senator's hottie daughter. And he himself would like to lose his overbearing father, what with him only partially funding his loonie playboy lifestyle. So Bruno hatches a plan and pitches it to Guy. Not realizing exactly how crazy he is, Guy kinda plays along. Next thing, bad wife turns up dead and Bruno feels a return favor is in order. Criss-cross.

Robert Walker (Bruno) led a troubled life himself involving erratic behavior and substance abuse. He had a bad reaction to a prescription drug when it was administered after heavy drinking, and stopped breathing. Two months after the movie's premiere, he would be dead. He was 32. And so it goes.

An important component of any film is suspension of disbelief. Everything you see (and this hold true for documentaries as well) is fake. But if you can suspend your disbelief, this does not matter. On this point I had an issue. I couldn't believe the protagonists action and the final scene at the carousel was patently ridiculous. This is a shame because it slightly spoils an otherwise excellent movie.

That said, Strangers is full of wonderful moments. One in particular features a cigarette lighter and a familiar pair of eye glasses. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it better had I not very high expectations. It is classic Hitchcock. AMRU 3.5.
"So, this is a rip off of Throw Momma from the Train?" - the wife

Sunday, March 15, 2015

One Million BC (1940)

Hikers lost in a storm stumble on a cave being investigated by an anthropologist. He tells the group a story about the ancient people who once lived there.

One upon a time there were two tribes. The Rock tribe was brutal. The men take what they want from the weaker. The women and children eat after the men's dogs, and the old are lucky if they eat at all. The Shell tribe, however, share their food. They eat vegetables, sing, laugh, and enjoy life.

One fateful day, after his meat is taken a young rock tribesman (Victor Mature) makes the mistake of striking the chief (Lon Chaney Jr). After a fight, our young hero is banished from the Rock tribe and limps away. He happens upon the Shell tribe, who take him in. At first he is confused by all this sharing and caring, but there's a hot blond (Carole Landis), so he wasn't complaining.

Our hero saves a child from what looks to be a poor man's sleestak. I think he killed it less out of fear and more out of pity. As someone who studied Anthro for a bit, I need to divorce myself from the terrible science here. Some films seem not try to get the science right, but BC appear to have tried and failed miserably. I choose to suspend disbelieve on this point, so no more from the nerd.

Legendary director D.W. Griffith apparently walked away while making this project because of a disagreement with Little Rascal's producer Hal Roach. D.W. thought there aught to be character development somewhere in there. Silly directors, am I right people? Hal and Hal Jr finish the direction.

About a year and a half ago I saw Valley of the Dragons, which I liked. I understood it lifted some of the giant lizard scenes from One Million BC. What I didn't realize is that it lifted virtually the entire story from it as well. Two tribes, misfits, love interest, dino attack, volcano, bigger dino attack, happily ever after (except for the people who died). Valley focused the story more on the conflict between male leads and making them modernish (and blaming Jules Verne), but at best you can call it a slight reimagining.

One brief note about pretty Carole Landis. Lovely and charming, her career never really took off. She ran through a series of failed marriages when she decided to off herself at the ripe old age of 29. In keeping with the tragic figures theme, she had taken her first name after Lombard.

The sets looked good and the silly dino sequences were ambitious for the day (sleestak-man not-with-standing), and the scene of a woman being swallowed by lava was quite effective. The story, however, was dull. Not bad, I suppose, from a director accustomed to producing silly one-reelers, but it's hard to develop story when characters don't talk. D.W. was right. I suppose I need to see the Raquel Welch version now. AMRU 3.