Sunday, January 31, 2010

Twice-Told Tales (1963)

Twice-Told Tales is a reference to a collection of short stories written by 19th century writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. The 1837 work contained 36 stories. The 1963 movie contains three stories, only the first of which actually appeared in the Hawthorne volume. The movie is a low budget Vincent Price vehicle. He narrates and stars in all three parts.

Part 1 is "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment", the story of two elderly friends (Price and Sebastian Cabot of Family Affair and Pooh fame) visiting on a story night to speak in flowery, Elizabethan language. When the storm opens the tomb of Cabot's departed love, they investigate to discover dear Silvia's body perfectly preserved for 38 years. Maybe it has something to do with this water that's been dripping on her corpse? Lets do an Experiment!

The second, "Rappaccini's Daughter", the story of a mysterious young woman who stays shut away in a garden courtyard. A young university student is intrigued by her mysterious nature, and also is looking to do the Victorian mambo. I won't spoil her secret, but let's just say it involves being able to steam a lizard purple. Serious mood killer, people.

The rubber match is "House of the Seven Gables". A "gable" is the generally triangular portion of a wall between the edges of a sloping roof, because I just know you're interested. Anyhow, Gerald Pyncheon (Price again) returns after 17 years to claim his ownership of the estate. Only, there is a curse on the Pyncheon men. Apparently back in the day, the Pyncheon family swindled the land from Matthew Maulle, and the house was built on top of his grave. Totally curse-worthy. Jerry doesn't care about that, however. He is looking for a secret vault that contains something valuable.

I was a little bit put off by this set at first, what with the flowery language and cheap, Dark Shadows-esque sets, but I was won over. Two of my boys actually watched it with me, a real treat for me. The cheesy sets and obvious plot flaws were irrelevant. We had fun watching it. We all agreed that Seven Gables was the best and Rappaccini was the worst. If there were a Trice Told Tales I wouldn't jump on it, but I'm glad I saw this. Not Price at his best, but good. And fun. AMRU 3.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Beat the Devil (1953)

On display at the library was a Bogart film I wasn’t familiar with. It stars an aging Bogie, a plump Peter Lorre, and a very young Gina Lollobrigida. It was directed by John Huston and written by Huston and Truman Capote. With that many big names attached to this film, I reasoned, it has to be great. Or suck.

The movie also featured the hot Jennifer Jones, who died in December, and Robert Morley, who looked at death’s door during the movie (fatty managed to live almost another 40 years). The clincher for me was to see a 26 year old Lollobrigida.

“Adventure at its boldest! Bogart at his best!” Bigger lies never before graced a movie jacket cover. Loosely based on the James Helvick novel, Bogie is Billy Dannreuther (sounded like Dan Rather), a man of questionable past married to Lollobrigida. He has a business deal with a group of four criminals lead by Peterson (Robert Morley). Somehow they will swindle uranium rich land in Africa and become millionaires. Bogie has the contact. They are delayed in Italy where they meet a British couple. He is a stuffy aristocratic type, she a dizzy chick with a strange sense of humor. They are taking over a coffee plantation and are on the same steam ship. Lots of antics in town and on board.

Jennifer Jones was charming, delivering the strangest lines in rapid fire. Bogie was, well, Bogie. Older. He would live only four more years. He was in a car accident during filming and lost a couple teeth, so then-unknown actor Peter Sellers was hired to dub parts. Lorre had a fairly small role.

I kept waiting for the business to get going. The trip, the land grab, the millions, but this is a standard caper-gone-bad film. Once I realized the story I THOUGHT was going to unfold, wasn’t, I enjoyed it a bit more. Lots of side deals, obstacles, lies, and mishaps. The tone was light, like a comedy, but it was more tongue-in-cheek than LOL. Still, it kept me interested, and guessing. Were I to pass it while channel surfing, I would likely linger on it for a bit, but I can’t imagine watching it again. AMRU 3.
“I've got to have money. Doctor's orders are that I must have a lot of money, otherwise I become dull, listless and have trouble with my complexion.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My Man Godfrey (1936)

William Powell is Godfrey, a "forgotten man" living in the city dump. Carole Lombard and Gail Patrick are Irene and Cornelia Bullock, rich socialites on a scavenger hunt. The last item they need is one of those "forgotten men", and Cornelia finds Godfrey first. Only, Godfrey isn't willing to play ball. Irene, charmed by his righteous indignation, asks better and Godfrey agrees to cooperate.

Godfrey expresses how he feels about polite society. Further charmed, Irene decides to make Godfrey her protege, and hires him to butle. That is, to be their butler. Irene falls for Godfrey while Cornelia plots to make his life miserable. Meanwhile, Godfrey makes himself the best butler they've ever had.

The loony family reminded me of the Sycamores of You Can't Take It with You, except where you are supposed to find the Sycamores and Carmichaels charming, you are to find the Bullocks foolish. And it's because I found them both foolish that My Man Godfrey better hits it's mark.

Carole was, however, absolutely charming as the dizzy Irene, delivering absurdist lines with ease. Her on screen chemistry with Powell defies the fact that they divorced (very amicably) three years earlier. She would later marry Clark Gable, then die in an airplane crash at age 33.

Powell was nominated for an Oscar, an amazing feat as his performance was superbly restrained and understated in a screwball comedy. Godfrey was always in control and I can't help but think Powell was every anything but.

I really liked Godfrey, and I found myself wanting to love it. I loved the performances, I really liked the dialog, and liked much of the story. In the end, AMRU 3.5.

"All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Song of the Thin Man (1947)

Here is where I intended on posting about Laura (1944), the great Otto Preminger detective mystery. Of the twenty chapters, I saw (with limited interruption) thirteen of them. I moved from the bedroom to the newer DVD player in the living room, and watched chapter fourteen. And that was it. Kaput. There was a thumb print on the disk that could not be washed off. Clear enough to get a conviction. You'd think people who rent classic movies would have a clue.

Song of the Thin Man is the last of the Thin Man series, although Myrna Loy and William Powell would go on to make one more of their fourteen films together. Nick and Nora are on a gambling boat and there's this band leader who is in need of money to pay off some thugs. His boss (secretly marrying the daughter of a rich tycoon) is playing hardball with his pay. Also this clarinet player who is mooning over the girl that left him for said band leader. Naturally, the band leader is murdered and everyone is a suspect. Nick Charles is dragged into it.

The story is not as complex as the earlier films, Myrna (starting to look her age) doesn't sizzle and pop. And one of the jokes was that Nick and Nora were becoming ... old. Keenan Wynn played a hipster musician who lends a hand. He introduces them to the music scene, using hip, mod language that Nick and Nora are too square to understand. Not funny.

I recognized the name Keenan Wynn but could not figure out where I knew him from. He played Winter in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, but I wasn't going to recognize him from that. Then I discovered his dad was Ed Wynn, who I recognized by sight. Photos of Keenan in his later years showed he was "oh, that guy". Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap) played Nick Junior.

It's rather bittersweet to know I've seen the last of the Thin Men, and sad it was the least interesting of the films. Dashiell Hammett wrote, as far as I can figure out, only five novels, all between 1929 and 1934. The Thin Man was his last. He concentrated on being a commie, war hero, and writing short fiction. I picked up the book on my last trip to the library. I'm a slow reader (which might be why I do films - I can watch an hour film in 58 minutes), but finished the book in three days. William Powell's character was dead on. Nora was less in the book, and Asta almost not at all. Way, way, way more complex than the film. I enjoyed it. My wife is reading it now and might make her want to see the first movie again.

Ten years after this was a TV show that lasted two seasons. I saw an episode when I did Forbidden Planet. Robbie the Robot had a cameo in an episode so they put it on the disk. Peter Lawford was all wrong as Nick and Phyllis Kirk was awful as Nora.

I enjoyed the swan song of the Thin Man and when deciding if I should buy the box set, it won't be the deciding factor. Periodically amusing, fairly interesting, but otherwise unremarkable. AMRU 3.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

White Heat (1949)

White Heat is the story of Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), a ruthless gangster trying to evade the law after a train robbery. He figures it's only a matter of time before the cops catch up with him, so he arranges to be convicted of a lesser crime. He'll stay in jail for a couple years and be released when the heat is off. They cops don't buy it but don't have enough evidence to convict on the train job. They send a cop into the prison to pose as a cell mate and gain his trust.

Unlike most cop dramas I've watched, the police here aren't stupid. In fact, they are very resourceful. Their techniques for tailing cars and keeping track of the baddies was fascinating, this being before GPS and cell phones.

Cagney is the star and totally shines. Virginia Mayo (Cagney with a side of Mayo? Naw...) is his loyal trophy wife, stage actress Margaret Wycherly is his fixated-upon mother (think Ma Barker). While Cody's sanity is questioned, his brutality is not. he is unflinching when offing police, robbery victims who might be able to identify him, and gang members who become liabilities. I've never watched a Cagney film (not counting that crap he did in drag with some dude named Lacey), and I recognized every mannerism copied by comedians and cartoons. What they could not copy is his ability to fill the screen and capture the eye. A master at work.

Cody's last line, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!", has been referenced in songs, movies, TV shows, and cartoons. Kevin Garnett shouted it during his post game interview after winning the NBA championship. This is a fascinating, complex story, well written, acted, and produced. It will appeal to people who think it won't. AMRU 4.
"You know something, Verna, if I turn my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it, there'd be a hole in it."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Talk of the Town (1942)

A warehouse burns to the ground and a man dies. Professional rabble rouser Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) is arrested. Realizing he doesn't have a chance in the world, he escapes before his trial. He takes refuge in the cottage of a lovely young schoolteacher, Nora Shelley (41 year old Jean Arthur). She helps Dreamy Leo but things get complicated when noted legal theorist Professor Lightcap (Ronald Coleman) arrives a day early to rent the cottage. Nora passes Leopold off as her gardener.

Every Christmas I get a daily desk calendar. I use them at work because it provides me with lots of paper for notes. This past Christmas I did not get one, so I went out and got myself a Leonard Maltin. Not really a Maltin guy. More a Siskel and Ebert type, but Maltin is what I found. I make two piles: one No the other Maybe. The Talk of the Town was in the Maybe pile.

There are two stories going at simultaneously. First is the legal drama unfolding. Malcontent Dilg has no tolerance for the abstract ideals of Lightcap's world and the fussy professor has no regard for Dilg's emotional notions of law. Reality, as it frequently is, is somewhere in between. Do you think these two could ever learn to compromise and someone become good friends, I mean real good friends? Do ya, huh?

The second story is of the love triangle. Nora is an unwed schoolteacher and therefore needs a man. Who does she choose to be with? That question is not answered until the very end, and don't be so sure. Interestingly, when the camera panned between the three actors, my eight year old said "triangle". The camera panned in the shape of a triangle. Huh.

He also asked when it was going to become funny. While sometimes amusing, it wasn't really a comedy. Talk of the Town is a very well crafted character study and (dare I say it) situation comedy. It didn't drag, it never seemed forced or trite. This is a well done movie. Sharp and focused. It was nominated for seven academy awards, winning ... um ... none.

An IMDB blogger cracked that this was a leftist propaganda movie. Bloggers, they can be so stupid, huh? Well anyways, I tried to fit his thesis into the reality on the screen. Did Cary Grant represent leftist ideals? Kinda, I would say. He name was Leopold Dilg, which sounds Ruskie to me! When posing at the gardener, they called him Joseph. Not Joe or Joey. Joseph. Hmmmm. When the man failed to realize, even if Dilg represented the left and Lightcap the right, both moved to the center. Plus Lightcap declared himself a political independent fairly early on.

Well written, well acted, and entertaining throughout. Jean Arthur is wonderful. I really did care about the characters and their stories. I wasn't totally charmed by this film, but I can see how others could be. I'm glad I watched it. AMRU 3.5.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Chandu the Magician (1932)

Impulse pickup at the library. The DVD cover shows a closeup of Bela Lugosi. I wasn't familiar with it. Bela did so many crappy movies. Chandu the Magician was based on a popular radio program of the day.

Chandu is Frank Chandler, a retired army captain who studied to be a Yogi in the orient. Think The Shadow. The movie begins with Chandler in, I'm guessing, India, taking his final exam. He demonstrates all of the Yogi tricks that he will need in this film. He can mesmerize people by doing a Little Rascals style eyes-wide stare. He can walk through fire, or between two lines of fire when the camera angle is low. And he can do this astral projection thing, which totally comes in handy. He also hears a weird sound when danger is near. Not too handy as everyone else can hear it too.

Chandler is given the Yogi name of Chandu by his Yogi teacher, who for some reason uses King James (thou shalt ...) language. He tells Chandu that he must do battle with the Evil Roxor (Bela). Why must Chandu fight him? Because when looking into his crystal ball he sees ... Dorothy! No, not that Dorothy, Chandler's sister. Roxor has captured Chandu's brother-in-law. Robert Regent created a super powerful death ray that Roxor wants to (somehow) use for evil. Hey, this was before atomic weapons. Personally I think Yogi was just trying to ditch the white dude.

Chandu pays Roxor a visit and rescues old flame Princess Nadja (Irene Ware). Rather than offing o'll Roxor right then and there, he grabs the hot princess and sets the place on fire, so that he can walk through the fire, or between two lines of fire when the camera angle is low.

There is a scene where Regent's daughter is captured. Dad still refuses to tell Roxor how to switch the death ray on, so he is forced to watch as his totally hot daughter is sold into slavery. When brought onto the trading block, she appears to smile and strike a sexy pose, her awesome figure on full display for all. I guess if you are going to be sold into slavery, you want to go for top dollar. Human slavery is such a horrible thing, and all, but if I'm there and that's what's for sale, I'm sorry honey, but I'm emptying the bank account!

I checked online to see what else June Lang/Vlasek has been in. Not too much, but I notice she was born in 1917. Let's do the math, shall we? When the movie was released she was .... fifteen?

Unclean ... unclean ... unclean. Depending on when the scene was filmed, she could have been fourteen. Yikes.

This was a cool action/adventure story. The Yogi magic was silly, and Edmund Lowe made for a very unheroic heroic character (he is downright silly trying to communicate with Robert through a mini travel-sized crystal ball like it was a radio), but the story was cool, the special effects were ahead of their time, and the sets were great. Bela Lugosi was absolutely brilliant as the most evil of villains. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I insisted my sons give it twenty minutes. If they didn't like it, I'd turn it off. But they loved it. Even my wife liked it. A little. AMRU 3.5.

There was a sequel called The Return of Chandu with a totally different cast. Except they promoted Bela from villain to hero. I believe it is a twelve part serial, but I'm not exactly sure. It appears to be in the public domain so I should be able to watch it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Monster Maker (1944)

What is it with old movies and caged apes? Did gorillas touch a nerve with the moviegoers back then?

The plot is simple. A creepy old doctor sees a hot chick at a piano concert. She is the very image of his dearly departed wife. So, what's a mad scientist to do? How about send her flowers and letters. And if 'oll dad says a word of complaint, infect him with a disease that slowly turns him into a monster! Sounds like a plan of success.

Irony strikes when Dad goes to the doctor and is refered to a specialist, namely Creepy Mad Doctor. Gosh, I wonder what he wants in return for curing him?

I knew J. Carrol Naish was in the movie, but I wasn't sure where. He was good in Dr. Renault's Secret (starring as the secret, himself) and I was curious to see him in another role. I popped on my blackberry, browsed to IMDB and .... holy crap! He's the Mad Doctor! Subhuman brute to evil scientist. Nice range!

Fair acting and dialog. Not altogether bad. Clearly a low budget movie, but not without it's charm. Pleasantly short. AMRU 3. Oh, yea, and the doctor had a caged ape. Not sure why.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

In this, the second to last Thin Man movie, the Charles visit Nick's parents. Nora is offended by Nick's father's dismissive attitude towards her husband's career choice, so she decides to take action. Everyone in town seem to think Nick is working on a case anyhow, so she decides to "shake the tree" a bit. A case will present itself, and if his father sees how great of a detective Nick is, all will be right in the universe.

A case is presented when a man is shot to death at their door. Lots of suspects, lots of side stories, lots of hidden information that proves critical. Typical Thin Man stuff. Except, Nick is off the sauce. Apparently the Senior Charles doesn't approve of the Devil's tonic, so Nickie is on the cider. Gone too is Nickie Junior. He stayed home because he loves kindergarten so much. That's right. When visiting the grandparents, they leave the grandchild behind and bring the dog.

This movie was supposed to have been filmed in '42 but Myrna decided to get married instead. They took up filming when the war and Myrna's marriage were winding down. Here, Loy's character openly pokes fun at the genre, first when describing one of Nick's cases to Dad. She tells how Nick tricked a suspect into revealing that he wasn't really crippled. Dad (a doctor) asked why he just didn't have a doctor check him out, which is what would have happened in real life. Also at the end, when Nick gathers all of the suspects together, Nora chats excitedly about the big pay off. She did that in earlier movies, but it seemed more overt here.

I think I liked this one more than the previous few. Nothing tops the first, but I do feel the need to see it again. Someday, when feeling rich, I may buy the complete set and watch them back to back. Loy was still hot at the cusp of 40 and Powell was still witty even without the sauce. The move from a stuffy mansion or cityscape to anytown, USA made for a nice change of scenery. It's sad to know there's only one left. AMRU 4.0.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Sitting on a park bench, a man tells a horrible story that happened to him and his fiancee. The man, named Francis, goes to a carnival with his friend Alan, and the lady Jane who the two men share affection for. A strange man named Dr. Caligari claims to briefly awaken the mysterious Cesare from a coma, where he foretells the future. Alan, making a game of it, asks "How long shall I live?" Cesare replies "The time is short. You die at dawn!"

Guess what. He does! That'll teach him to not take creepy carnival acts seriously.

Widely regarded as the first feature length horror film, it was groundbreaking in it's style and influence. The crate paper sets were remarkably stylistic. Dramatic shadows were painted directly onto the sets.

Here's some interesting stuff: Cesare (Conrad Veidt) went on to play Major Strasser in Casablanca. He would do one more movie before dying at age 50. He fled Nazi Germany and made a minor career for himself playing Nazis. He was set to play Dracula, but lost the role to Bela Lugosi.

The "cabinet" the title refers to is the box Cesare is kept in. The twist ending was apparently added by the producers who wanted a less "macabre" story. Cesare is described as a somnambulist, which means sleepwalker. Not sure if that description fits.

The film is available on the public domain, but I would suggest finding the KINO restoration. By no means flawless, it is significantly better in video quality, which is important for a silent film. One note, however. In the special features, you have the option of choosing the score. The default, modern score is awful. I didn't try the traditional score, but it has to be better.

Creepy, if not actually scary, all horror films owe a debt to Dr. Caligari. AMRU 3.5.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Movies of 2009

I went to a theater exactly three times in 2009, all in the first half. When my boys were younger, I used to joke saying I only saw movies about a young wizard. Soon, even that ended. Here is what I got to see:

Race to Witch Mountain. I vaguely remember watching the originals back in the day. A theater in East Providence has bargain matinees and we took advantage of it. This movie cost us five bucks. In total.

In the original, the two magical kids captivated audiences and the actors went on to illustrious careers like playing townsfolk in this turd of a movie. Thing to note: if you are trying to get away from an assassin in a super high-tech flying saucer, all you need apparently is a beat up taxi cab.

Star Trek. In this instalment of the never-ending mission to extract money from geeks, Kirk and friends exist in a parallel time line. See, now we don't have to follow any of the rules of the old series and movies. If they want to kill off Chekov, then KA-POW! In this parallel time line, Uhura is HOT! Go figure.

Night at the Museum - Battle of the Smithsonian. We liked the original. It had great action and was funny. This was almost as exciting. And almost as funny. In the end, we liked it almost as much. In the film Amelia Earhart likes men and is hot in tight pants. Amy Adams' ass is almost worth the price of admission right there.

That's it. Three visits to a movie theater in one year. I did hit the Providence Public Library, but that doesn't count.

I did watch a few 2009 releases on video. I just know you are dying to find out what I think of them:

Julie & Julia. Hey, Amy Adams again! Sadly, without her coveted butt. A cooking movie for my wife. We both liked it and she ended up getting the DVD for Christmas.

Star Trek. Uhura is HOT! Another gift for the wife.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. First movie where I didn't read the book first. I declared myself through with the series. A whole lot of snogging going on. Wife wanted this, but didn't get it.

Inglourious Basterds. Not for the wife. She hates Tarantino, even though we both loved Pulp Fiction. Two-thirds of the movie is subtitled and rather than put them on the black part at the bottom of the screen, they are in the picture. In some cases they were up for an instant even though there were two lines to read. Comeon, Quint! Give me a break!

Fast paced, gratuitously violent, unexpectedly quirky, everything you come to expect from the man.

Angels and Demons. I liked this book better then Da Vinci Code, but there were a couple plot points that were really stupid. Luckily, Opie Cunningham agreed and they weren't in this film. Never saw The Da Vinci Code movie. This was fair. Seems that Tom Hanks isn't searching for an Oscar vehicle anymore.

Saw some other movies on DVD, but the only one worth mentioning is 2007's The Man From Earth. Consider looking into it.