Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Man who Knew Too Much (1956)

A vacationing couple (Stewart and Day) and their son have a chance encounter with a strange french man in Morocco. Soon he is murdered but delivers a critical message to husband Benjamin. The authorities want to know the message, but the baddies have his little boy. So, the befuddled doctor husband and hottie singer-wife run around amateur sleuthing to save the day, and their boy.

Those familiar with Hitch’s 1934 film of the same name pretty much know the story. Bits were added and things were given to the wife to do, but the basic story line is intact. While the original was somewhat unpolished and suffered from poor audio and video quality, this version suffered from pacing issues and too familiar of a story. I think I’d have liked it better had I not seen the original.

Hitch called the first Man the work of a talented amateur, but preferred it over this, the higher budget and more polished version. My issue here however has to do with certain scenes being dragged out way too long. We see the thing, we understand what might happen, we hear the music build, then stare at my watch. Building suspense, Hitch would say. Just get on with it! I would.

What worked was Doris Day, who is utterly charming in every scene. Her signature song Que Sera, Sera came from here, which Day initially wasn’t very fond of. What didn’t work was Stewart, who is very Jekyll and Hyde with me. Love him in some movies, not so much in others. This one not so much. It's not that he's a poor actor, it's just that he can be so one-note. In so many films he plays exactly the same character in different circumstances, and I don't find it charming.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a serviceable film, but brought little original to the table. Much more watchable than the 1934 version, but simply not that interesting. Especially compared to the other films Hitch was making at the time. AMRU 3.
“If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails. We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman!”

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Black Cat (1934)

A young, newly married couple (David Manners and Julie Bishop) honeymoon in Hungary when they meet up with the creepy Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). They share a carriage ride that crashes in the rain. So, creepy doctor, creepy assistant, and our young couple walk to the creepy house of the creepy Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Our creeps have a backstory that involves a prisoner of war camp that stood exactly where the creepy house now does. Oh, and something about stealing Vitus’ wife and daughter. And there’s this deal where Vitus is terrified of cats. Black cats, specifically.

Based on the title of the Poe story of the same name, The Black Cat bears no resemblance to the source material. Fans may remember Manners as the dashing leading man from Dracula and The Mummy films. He also played supporting characters in better films. His lack of real acting talent encouraged him to leave Hollywood before he reached forty. Fans might not remember Julie Bishop or Jacqueline Wells, or Diane Duval, or whatever other name she acted under. I had never seen her in anything before. This is the first of eight films starring the two biggest names in horror at the time (Boris and Bela, that is), and was a huge commercial success despite, or maybe because of, its controversial, satanic themes.

What a weird-ass film! Not too sure what to make of it. Director Edgar G. Ulmer was becoming recognized for his work when he started seeing the wife of a studio producer, who also happened to be the nephew of Carl Laemmle himself. Maybe it was that, or just being a strange dude, but he walked away from his contract and concentrated on independent projects. He would later do The Man from Planet X and Detour.

Strange tone, ambiguous story elements, and reasonably short. If you are looking for a good, atmospheric early horror film other than the biggies, and before they became parodies of themselves, The Black Cat fits the bill. AMRU 3.5.
“Come, Vitus. Are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like…”

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)

What, Sherlock again? There’s fourteen of these suckers and I am determined to get through them by years end. So, this time Holmes and Yo-Yo transport a scientist out of Switzerland before he and his Secret Weapon fall into the hands of the Gestapo. This proves difficult because even eccentric scientists need a booty call every now and again. So when man and machine turn up missing, our heroes must track down both before the Evil Moriarty discovers their secrets. Based ever so loosely on The Adventure of the Dancing Men.

Ah, the middle section where I find something interesting about an actor or behind-the-scene happening. Yea, this is totally where I do that. It seems this Holmes series was factory production and they click off like clockwork. So …. good job, guys!

Crossing studios and eras, the Sherlock Holmes series is amazingly consistent in quality and tone, which is especially surprising as they don’t yet share writers or directors. In fact, different actors have played Moriarty. The story, humor, and atmosphere are what we come to expect. Chalk another nice watch for Holmes. AMRU 3.5.
“Brilliant man, Sherlock Holmes. Too bad he was honest.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

The inner council requests the help of Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) because the citizens of London are being terrorized by radio broadcasts from Nazis. Wait, what?

That’s right, Nazis. Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce) are transported about fifty years to the (then) present day to do their part in the war effort. This is possible because “the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging”, so, yea. That. Not sure how a modern day Sherlock played to audiences back then, but since it’s been seventy five years since the movie came out, it still plays somewhat as a period piece.

Anachronisms aside, The Voice of Terror is a better than fair mystery (there's a spy) with all the wit and charm of the earlier films. Given my druthers, I’d prefer it set in Victorian London, but while America escaped the war to the cinemas, England had no such option. We had difficulty getting meat and gasoline, they were eating acorns. Universal did a good job picking up the franchise. AMRU 3.5.
“There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson. And a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind nonetheless and a greener, better, stronger land that will lie in the sunshine when the storm is cleared.”

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Troubled but talented screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is assigned to adapt a terrible novel for the screen. Hot coat check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart - No, not THAT Martha Stewart!) loves the book, so he invites her back to his place for her to describe the story to him. Or whatever else. He gets nowhere with the girl or the script so he sends her packing via taxi. When she turns up dead, Dix is the prime suspect. The only witness for his whereabouts is a hot neighbor (Gloria Grahame) who noticed him from her window. Love blooms.

So, rather than a who-done-it, we’ve got a did-he-do-it. We’re used to the old and decrepit Bogart playing the romantic lead, and he is no stranger to morally ambiguous characters, so this is right up his alley. But maybe a bit more morally ambiguous than we are used to. At the onset the audience and his alibi-then-lover are certain of his innocence but soon we both become unsure as his darker nature reveals itself. His relationship with too-young-for-him Graham rings true. Besides, she was about a year older than his real life wife.

Speaking of Graham, perhaps you recall me retelling of a certain friction between her and her second husband, director Nicholas Ray. Graham and Ray’s marriage was on the rocks while he was directing her here. You remember, dabbling with the step-son. That's a recipe for disaster.

Despite being the sole suspect for the murder, and Dixon’s violent tendencies which frequently get him into trouble, his friends all repeated say how much they love Dix. They love Dix so much! They'd never say no to Dix. Yea, sometimes I’m twelve.

In a Lonely Place is sometimes dark, sometimes amusing, and has great atmosphere. Don’t expect Bogart to be his regular hero character. He is far more real here. An excellent film-noir. AMRU 4.
“There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.”

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Dr. Moriarty (George Zucco) is released from prison because, you know, reasons, and vows one last plan to ruin Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) before retiring. Why he says this to Holmes directly is beyond me. Anyhow, Holmes is appropriately suspicious when two cases cross his desk. The captain of Scotland Yard asks for help when he receives a vague threat regarding the Crown Jewels. But that’s not nearly as interesting as the hot young woman (Ida Lupino) who fears for her brother’s life because of a silly drawing. Suspicious boyfriend is suspicious.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was based on a 1899 stage play which starred a young Charlie Chaplin in a small role. Cratchit boy Terry Kilburn plays that character here. I understand the two stories bear little resemblance. One strange thing here is that Holmes lives not at 221B Baker street with boy-toy Watson (Nigel Bruce) but instead in a great mansion with servants and stuff. The films opening was overshadowed by the Nazis invading Poland the same day. Way to ruin a party, Hitler!

Despite this story being new to me, it falls short of The Hound. There was the atmosphere and amusing moments, but little mystery. Because of some inside information it’s not hard for us to guess the outline of Moriarty’s plan. Sherlock, however, is mostly perplexed. Rather than solve the mystery, he follows all the wrong leads, then runs to the climax to wrestle with Moriarty.

Amusing and entertaining, The Adventures is a fun watch and worthy successor to The Hound. It was the last for 20th Century, the franchise being picked up by Universal three years later (with some changes!) AMRU 3.5.
“You've a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I'd like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rebecca (1940)

A pretty young woman (Joan Fontaine) is the travelling companion of a wealthy busybody (Florence Bates). While in Monte Carlo they cross paths with dashing rich man (Laurence Olivier). He is mourning his dead wife and thus acts aloof and antisocial. Despite this, pretty woman and dashing widower spend time together and get married. He takes her back to his expansive estate

Skittish and unsure, the new Mrs. de Winter has to contend with a distant husband, a household staff that seems not to embrace her, and the spectre of the dead OLD Mrs. de Winter (Rebecca). George Sanders plays the George Sanders character, Leo G. Carroll played the Leo G. Carroll character, and Nigel Bruce plays the Nigel Bruce character. Nice when that all works out.

What a peculiar film! Apparently faithful to the source material, the pace was hurried to get all the facts in place. Also, the extensive use of matte paintings and miniature sets, while impressive, were very apparent. But it was the film’s frantic pace that initially troubled me. Over time, however, it slowly won me over to this, Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film only Best Picture.

Rebecca is one of the earliest Hitchcock films I’ve seen and it has the polish characteristic of his later work, but somehow feels a little different. Set in the modern day (1940), it seems a little like a period piece. Austere mansion, polite society, elevated language, and not expressly a genre picture. That said, it does resemble Suspicion a bit, Fontaine’s (and Bruce’s) other Hitch Flick.

In the end. as I said, I did come around. It’s an interesting and very good picture. The scene between Fontaine's unnamed character and Mrs. Danvers is truly bizarre. For my money, not THE best picture of 1940, but up there. AMRU 3.5.
“I've been thinking...
Now why would you want to go and do that for?”

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Entitled bitch Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) learns that the man she is infatuated with (Leslie Howard) is marrying his cousin (Olivia de Havilland), then the war of southern aggression takes the men’s attention away from her, and all the while she is pursued by the cad Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). After losing her precious way of life she learns to be self sufficient, saves Tara, gets her man, and lives happily ever after. Promise.

Chalk this up as another ‘How the hell did I not see this until now’ film. I’m sure this is because I have seen bits and pieces and, well, I have issues. Costume melodramas aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse and I have reveled in my dislike for this kind of film. I have called the Wizard of Oz the greatest bad movie ever and this the worst great movie ever. Not that anyone could say the line Fiddle-dee-dee without sounding like a complete fraud, but some of the acting was horrendous. But mostly I have an extreme distaste for the idolization of the old South, where the idle rich live in lavish comfort on the backs of unimaginable cruelty. And make no mistake, some of that is here, but more on that later. So, after seeing fifty candles on my cake I actually sat down and watched all seventy hours of this epic, romantic, quasi-historic costume melodrama. Here is what I have to say.

There are no likable characters in the film, said one son, with the exception of de Havilland’s Melanie, and she was just a paper-thin generic goodie character used as a foil for horrid Scarlett. To disagree somewhat, I did like the cad Rhett Butler. He knew who he was and owned up to it. He pursued Scarlett because she was just like him. Selfish, manipulative, and driven. Oh, and she was hot. And rich. This may be Gable’s best roll, even though he dismissed it as a woman’s picture. But if you really liked Scarlett as a protagonist, then you are a terrible person.

The third leg in this love triangle is Ashley Wilkes, played by a middle aged ugly man. I guess they didn’t want people rooting for him too much. Seriously, Howard was pushing fifty during filming! He loves Scarlett (I guess) but marries his cousin because that’s what the Wilkes always do. I suppose. Then the war, then all hell breaks loose, then our story resolves. Back to my principal issue.

Slavery is the single greatest evil my nation perpetrated on other humans, and that is saying something. The best thing you can say about the institution is that it was worse in other places. America didn’t need to continuously import slaves to replace the ones dying in the fields, like in the Caribbean. They lived long enough to produce new slaves. If that’s your saving grace, then, again, you are a terrible person. Slavery is never justified by the gifts of civilization and Christianity. And you cannot reminisce for the old south without acknowledging the great and terrible evil that allowed it to exist. The Old South needed to die just as the aristocracies of old Europe. Let’s get back to the film.

What I had missed about Gone With the Wind was there is more than one way to enjoy the story. You could feel sorry for Scarlett or the loss of plantation society as many people do. But the events depicted are not necessarily a treatise on the loss of something grand or the cruelty of the North, but a statement that War is Hell and here are events that happened. Enjoying the story does not necessitate sympathy with slaveholders.

Stepping away from the heavy narrative for a moment, I'd like to shout out to Scarlett's dad played by Thomas Mitchell. He also appeared in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all in the SAME YEAR! Olivia de is pushing 101, almost as old as my uncle.

Gone With the Wind is an amazingly beautiful film. The sets, the photography, the editing, it all comes together wonderfully. And the copy I saw was a fairly poor transfer. I can only imagine what a fully restored 4k edition would look like. And for a film that’s two minutes shy of four hours, it never drags. That’s coming from me, charter member of Short Attention Span Theater fan club. I will see it again. AMRU 4.

I don’t leave you with a film quote (of course there were many to choose from), but one from Leslie Howard, who died four years later, a causality of the war:
“I hate the damn part. I'm not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Young Henry (Richard Greene), heir to the Baskerville Estate, gets to move in early when uncle Charles dies of a heart attack. Or was he eaten by a phantom hound? No, it was a heart attack. Anyhow, Charlie’s good buddy Dr. Mortimer thinks the family is cursed (you now, by a hound) and young Henry’s life is in great danger. He goes to the legendary Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) for help.

Remember when I covered the 1959 Hammer version? You do? I don't, to be honest. That was almost seven years ago, and yes, I still haven’t read the source story. I may have gotten details wrong there, so hopefully I’ll do better here.

In a pre-Cumberpatch world, Holmes and Watson were synonymous with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. (Remember Nigel from Suspicion?) The pair did fourteen Holmes films between 1939 and 1946. Impressed? Twelve were between 42 and 46, plus they even made an appearance in an unassociated comedy. Now THAT’S a production schedule! As such, their style and performances became the standard for all future versions.

The character of Watson (in a pre-Martin Freeman world) was that of a portly, somewhat pompous windbag. A complete foil to Holmes’ understated genius. That characterization comes from Nigel Bruce. The Watson from the stories was the admiring and frequently confounded narrator, not dissimilar to Freeman’s depiction.

Veteran studio hack John Carradine played the suspicious butler. This was just about when his career was taking off. That same year he’d appear in Stagecoach and eventually build a reputation in the world of horror. Also appearing is Lionel Atwill as the good Doctor. He too would spend time working the Universal horror circuit. Come to think of it, Basil himself also had a brief spell there.

The Baskerville estate lies, apparently, on a rocky asteroid, far from civilization but with unusually fast mail delivery. Anyhow, they hold dinner parties,  perform seances, and fall in love while waiting for the mythical hound-beast to eat them all. Or not. Hard to tell.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a lot of fun. A better than fair mystery with great atmosphere, the kind Old Hollywood sometimes did well. There were red herrings and amusing moments, and a good time was had by all. Except those who died. The next one won't be too far off. AMRU 3.5.
“Oh, Watson - the needle!”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

In the summer, wives and children of the well to do escape the Manhattan heat for lakeside paradises, leaving husbands and fathers behind to behave like unsupervised delinquents. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) wants to be good, yes he does, but, you see, this hot blond (Marilyn Monroe) just moved upstairs, and you know …

Originally a play, the story revolved around a man’s affair when the wife is away. No, actual affairs just won’t do, says the Hays office. Instead of feeling guilty for having an affair, good old Sherman has to feel guilty about WANTING to have an affair. So Ewell plays the aging, dorky, ladies-man-wanna-be to Monroe’s ditzy sexpot confused why men react strangely to her baby-doll act. We, the audience, grin and pretend to be wiser.

For reasons that escape me, now that I’ve seen the film, I don't understand how Marilyn’s subway skirt scene became so iconic. It is shorter and less sexy than I expected, and, well that’s all I have to say about that. Hey, look! It’s Carolyn Jones, again in a tiny role. She played Morticia …. nevermind.

The production code turned a very provocative stage play into a somewhat confounding film. Billy Wilder and George Axelrod did their level best to create a viable comedy out of a redacted screenplay, but the end result is only mildly amusing and eminently dated. Compare this to Irma la Douce made seven years later also by Wilder (and originally was to star Monroe) after standards were loosened quite a bit. Neither were fantastic films, but Irma at least had sex appeal. In a very giggling-twelve-year-old sort of way, but still. I would be curious what a faithful adaptation would look like.

The Seven Year Itch isn't uninteresting, but it is somewhat strange (Sherman has fantasy conversations and narrates his own life). There is humor, but nothing to evoke an actual laugh. AMRU 3.
“Miss Morris, I'm perfectly capable of fixing my own breakfast. As a matter of fact, I had a peanut butter sandwich and two whiskey sours.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Miracle Worker (1962)

A baby girl (Patty Duke, eventually) loses her sight and hearing to an illness and becomes more and more unmanageable. Out of desperation her parents hire an unconventional carpetbagger (Anne Bancroft) to work a miracle, maybe.

This is the story of Helen Keller, the deaf, dumb, and blind kid from those witty and original jokes of my youth. The movie did not address whether or not she could play a mean pinball. My mother knew of Keller in her youth as a motivational speaker, so I guess she wasn’t actually dumb in either sense of the word. Back to the movie.

Here are some things that struck me: Fifteen year old (and victim of 2016) Patty Duke was tiny, no bigger than a child of eight. In adulthood she topped out at five foot nothing which aided in her portrayal as a much younger child. Playing a deaf and blind child can go oh so very wrong in oh so many ways, but Duke’s experience playing the character onstage payed off. Her performance felt amazingly authentic, without even a hint of camp.

The Miracle Worker was a very low budget production. With a budget of half a million (chicken feed even by 1962 standards), it shows in the titling, score, and film grain quality. This did not hurt the story, in fact a more Hollywood polished product may have detracted. The task at hand did not need to be romanticized.

Helen’s mom was played by none other than Inga Swenson, better known to me as Ingrid Swenson from Soap and to a lesser extent Gretchen from Benson. She didn’t play a very endearing character on television and it was surprising to see her all young and hot, and with an accomplished southern belle accent.

This fascinating character study and battle of wills has only the power of the acting performances going for it, but power it has in spades. Helen’s behavior and the events ring very true, although it did look silly sometimes when she would push Anne Sullivan and she’d go flying. Still, even though it’s fifty five years old, I’d recommend it to anyone dealing with a less than compliant child. AMRU 3.5.
“Mrs. Keller, I don't think Helen's greatest handicap is deafness or blindness. I think it's your love and pity. All these years you've felt so sorry for her you've kept her like a pet. Well, even a dog you housebreak.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Road to Singapore (1940)

Two regular guys (Bob Hope and Bing Crosby) are being pressured into marriage. Bing by his captain of industry dad (Charles Coburn) and fairly hot fiancee (Judith Barrett), and Bob by, I don’t know, some thugs because he took liberties with someone’s daughter? We never see her. So anyhow, they escape to Singapore to bachelor freedom and poverty. There they meet a hot dancer (Dorothy Lamour) who is escaping her angry … boss? Boyfriend? (Anthony Quinn).

From what I understand, all of the Road movies follow the same format. Flee to exotic location and compete over cutie Lamour as an excuse for comedy gags and running bits. The trio appeared in seven such films, the first few being the best, if IMdb is to be trusted.

It was originally a vehicle for George Burns and Gracie Allen (not sure how the escaping marriage angle was handled there), then offered to Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie, and finally given to Hope and Crosby because they were clowning around on the Paramount set. Thus a comedy team was born.

I enjoyed Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary. The horror element was skillfully relieved by solid comedy. But here the laughs were in short supply. The tone was light and the banter playful, and I'll excuse the level of cultural sensitivity you could expect, but I don’t recall snickering, even once. And while Hope was working hard the laughs, Bing’s cucumber cool demeanor was about as interesting as his search engine namesake. The end result was a watchable, mildly interesting, unfunny, and skippable film. AMRU 2.5.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Irma la Douce (1963)

An honest Parisian cop (Jack Lemmon) is fired for calling a raid on street walkers. He then falls in love with one of them (Shirley MacLaine) and becomes her pimp. It’s the classic love story.

What was originally a musical was adapted into a rather strange film. Themes like crime, prostitution, infidelity, domestic violence, and even murder are treated with a bizarre whimsy. Universal Protagonist Jack Lemmon suffers through all of it. He loves Irma and cannot stand it when she serves her customers, so he concocts a bizarre plan to deal with his jealousy, but no spoilers here.

Marilyn Monroe and Charles Laughton both were set to appear but were totally croak-city come production. A Marilyn Irma (or EAR-ma) would have been an interesting change. Surely she would have highlighted the character’s stupid qualities. Laughton would have played bar owner Moustache, and would have been wonderful but I don’t see how he could have improved on Lou Jacobi. Who wasn’t dead yet was Grace Lee Whitney as Kiki the Cossack, whom geeks will recognize as Yeoman Janice Rand. Also interesting is the the film debut of James Caan and an early appearance of Bill Bixby. Look them up, ya damn millennials!

Very bawdy by early 60’s standards. Unlike another Billy Wilder film made a few earlier (which I will soon cover), the sexuality holds up. Many shots of topless women from the back, MacLaine included. It’s a twelve-year old’s dream. Before the internet, that is. It is a good example of how Hollywood changed during these times. What a difference eight years makes.

MacLaine didn’t think much of the script nor the film, but it earned her an Oscar nom none-the-less. The tone is almost off-putting with it’s flip treatment of dark material, but it doesn’t fail to entertain. The dialog is clever and witty like (almost) all Wilder films, and it is visually appealing. But that’s another story. AMRU 3.5.
“It's a hard way to earn an easy living.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

Maria (Ava Gardner), a beautiful Spanish club performer, is recruited by Hollywood looking for a fresh face. Despite Hollywood, Maria isn’t all keen to go. She likes to keep her feet in the dirt, whatever that means.

The movie begins at Maria’s funeral. The story is about her rise to fame, her struggle with what is truly important to her, the rich and powerful men that court her, and her ultimate fate. It is told from the perspective of the lives she touched, mostly Director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart).

What I was expecting to be a pretty standard rom-com turned out to be something else. There are comedic elements but it is by no means a comedy. And romance is in short supply. That’s right faithful reader. Bogart does not get the girl. Leave it to Mankiewicz to do a regular Hollywood production that doesn’t exactly follow genre conventions. Typically wordy, intelligent, and high quality. Despite much of the film taking place directly in Hollywood, it has a European feel in a way I can’t exactly explain. I also get the feeling that it was a longer film (128 minutes as it is) and cut down. There are characters introduced who seem to have more story in them.

The Barefoot Contessa is an interesting, if not riveting, character study. It’s witty, visually appealing, does not lull, and keeps you invested to the conclusion. The tone was a little unexpected and maybe not Mankiewicz’s best, but it was most certainly interesting. AMRU 3.5.
“I *have* never done a day's work in my life - honest OR dishonest, but neither have you... To make 100 dollars into 110 dollars, this is work. To make 100 million into 110 million, this is inevitable.”

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Sound of Music (1965)

Young Maria (Julie Andrews) is a misfit at a convent, so they convince her to take the job of a governess of seven children (the oldest is sixteen, going on seventeen), of a military disciplinarian. Who hates Nazis.

Loosely based on real life, what actually happened over two decades is depicted over a few months. There are a great many other inaccuracies, but I won’t bore you with Wikipedia stuff. What’s interesting about this movie? If you know it only by pop culture references, you may be surprised by the presence of Nazis. They are actually a foundational part of the story. What shouldn’t be surprising is that Julie Andrews is wonderful and lights up the screen every time she’s on, which is virtually every frame.

Grumpy Christopher Plummer, who hated making the film and hated the end product, called working with Andrews as being hit over the head with a Valentine’s day card every day. He used an old actors technique to get himself through the shoot called drink-yourself-blotto. Maybe his malcontentedness helped him channel his inner jerk. Real father Georg wasn’t the dower soul as he is depicted. The real Maria and Von Trapp children asked to have his character soften, but what fun would that be. Maria was something of a pest on the set.

The Sound of Music is a wonderfully looking film. The combination of fluffy songs with evading the Nazis tied up in a Rom Com format is unexpectedly enjoyable. Robert Wise knows how to shoot a film and is a much underrated director. AMRU 4.
“The poor didn’t want this one.”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Joanne D’Arc (Maria Falconetti) is tried for her crimes of heresy by the church. Things for her don’t turn out well. Everyone I suppose knows the story of Joan of Arc. Young fifteenth century peasant girl impersonates a boy to fight the English because God told her to. She is tried for heresy and, well, you know what happens when you take god’s word over the church’s.

The story here isn’t about the story, but about the drama. Filmed almost entirely in closeups, with no makeup, against sparse sets, putting the intentions and emotions of the characters on clear display. In case you are curious: Ugly+Old+Man = Evil. An equation that works even today.

Canonized only eight years prior to the films release, the recently published transcripts of the trial were the basis for the script. Falconetti, a stage actress, did not want to cut her hair or be filmed without makeup. By many accounts her treatment by director Carl Theodor Dreyer was tortuous. The end result was one of the most praised films of early cinema.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a fantastic film because of its simplicity. It’s a simple story, simply shot, and wonderfully done. AMRU 4.
“Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her … she was a sister who really cooked!”

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Carol for Another Christmas (1964)

Grumpy old man, visits from ghosts, Christmas spirit, everyone lives happily ever after. Only this time, instead of Ebenezer Scrooge: Victorian miser it’s Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden): modern day grieving dad. He’s rich, but money isn’t the problem here. He lost his son seven years ago this very night in the war (Korea, I presume) so now he … what, hates war? After an exchange with his nephew Fred (Ben Gazzara), he sees a reflection of his son, Marley Grudge (Ugh!), passes out, and is then visited by three ghosts. Roll credits. Please.

Written by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, A Carol for Another Christmas is chuck full of his other-worldly sensibility as well as his wordy preaching. What is Grudge’s problem really? Hating war seems perfectly natural. His grief is getting in the way of embracing his extended family? I don’t see how. Who does Grudge hold a grudge against? The message is amazingly muddy.

Christmas Past is hep cat Stevie Lawrence who shows Grudge the history of war being bad, which he already knew. He also shows him his own experience in the Good War, apparently demonstrating that Grudge was always an asshole. No clue what lesson is learned here.

Christmas Present does a little better. Grudge is shown how bad off some people have it, and that we have a responsibility to help. Intervene, we should. That’s his quote down at the bottom. But it’s yet to come where the wheels truly come off. Robert Shaw, the most talkative grim reaper this side of Billy & Mandy, shows Grudge an absurdist post-apocolyptic future let by populist isolationist Imperial Me (Peter Sellers). Don’t trust people outside of the group, only follow him, yadda yadda yadda.

A Carol was a made for TV event intended to be watched once. Written by Serling and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, it is a wordy mess. Is this a pro-Vietnam involvement film? The dialog is so convoluted it’s hard to say what it’s point is. To its credit it refrains from borrowing too much from the supposed source material. Just the names Fred and Marley, plus the convention of Christmas and the three ghosts. Dicken’s dialog didn’t get shoehorned in, and the entire Cratchitt family is blissfully absent. Thank god because It’s unwatchable enough as it is. AMRU 2.
“Mankind, Mr. Grudge, in there. The hungry part of mankind, the anguished part. The dispossessed. If you shared a loaf of bread with them, how would you be relinquishing your freedom? Or if you joined other nations to administer vaccinations to their children, how would you have desecrated your flag? Or if you had offered them solace and hope and comfort, how would you have made yourself susceptible to tyranny?”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

An Affair to Remember (1957)

While solo on a cruise, engaged playboy Nicky (Cary Grant) tries to make the acquaintance of Terry (Deborah Kerr), who is in a long term relationship herself. Despite her rejection and mutual bickering, they fall in love. So, they make a pact. If after returning to their existing paramours they still feel the same way about each other, in six months they will meet at the top of the Empire State Building and live happily ever after. Roll credits, only not really.

An important plot point that had escaped me for a bit was that our romantic leads had no financial means of their own, but were accustomed to the lifestyle afforded them by their respective loves. Guess I wasn't paying that close attention. So, not only did they have to say goodbye to their partners, they had to say goodbye to their way of life. This raises the stakes. They’ll need to get jobs! So, if they can, and they do, then they will. Maybe.

I had some issues with this film, at least initially. I wasn’t entirely buying our hero’s chemistry. Also I didn’t buy Grant as a struggling artist. Not the type. This passed, however, as the story progressed. Super-saturated Technicolor is a bit of a double-edged sword. Something about Kerr’s makeup looked strange, but the set pieces really popped. It was nice to see the elder statesmen of ladies men dogging a woman way past 30. Casualty of 2016 Marni Nixon did Kerr’s singing voice once more. She actually acted in another film I saw last year, but you’ll hear more about that soon.

In the end, I don’t have much to say about An Affair to Remember. Not bad. Parts didn’t click for me, but I liked it in the end. AMRU 3. No wait, I decided to widen my ratings a bit. 3.5.
“Aw, this is just a rip off of Sleepless in Seattle”
“Which was in itself a ripoff of An Affair to Remember”
“Which wasn’t that good of a movie to start with!”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

2016: My Film Blog Year in Review

Fifty eight films. Not too shabby. One year ago I wished for no personal bad news, and there was none. Plenty public bad news, but since this is a FILM blog, I’ll leave it there. Allow me to start off saying I watched some pretty good films. My father, whom you may know passed a couple years ago, was a television addict. He was also a TV hog and my mom didn’t care for war movies and westerns, but she liked the stuff I was watching. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out, but in February I started bringing DVDs to her house.

Not only did I get to watch with someone who loved old movies, but to also revisit films I loved. I have no count, but I’m sure I watched over a hundred classic films in 2016. She loves Hitchcock, so we watched six. She likes Rom-Coms, and we got twelve in. It’s been great.

Anyhow, the four musicals and seven silents are about on par from last year. I didn’t hate any of them. Something I’ve noticed is how I stick to the 2.5 to 3.5 range for my films. I feel reluctant to not criticize nor praise a movie too much. I will try to be more generous on both sides. Only five horror (by my definition anyhow) and one Sci-Fi. That change was partially a migrating interest, and partially looking for mom-friendly films. This trend will likely continue.

The films that stuck with me the most were 12 Angry Men, Rear Window, Lifeboat, Fiddler on the Roof, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Harvey, and Pandora’s Box, a couple of which in retrospect deserved a half point higher. And there were more. On the stinker side, despite how terrible Cat People was, goes to General Spanky. Not only is it insulting in a “Will you be my massa?” way, but it also serves up nothing remotely interesting visually, comedically, or through narrative. All it does is pair slavery as a joke along with editorializing how bad the Yankees were for trying to stop it. At least Cat People had a topless Nastassja Kinski. One has to admit, thought, that two stinkers out of fifty eight is pretty good.

I have tried to streamline my writing process so I can publish on a more regular schedule, and it’s better, but I do still have two pre-Christmas films (and a third pre-New Year’s) left to do. I cannot dedicate as much time to this project as some, but I suppose I am lucky to find time to watch movies at all. I still have over a hundred and fifty classic films on my watch list, and I seem to add a new one for every two I watch. Certainly I won’t run out of films.

So, looking forward I expect more of the same. I upgraded my mom from an ancient DVD player to Blu Ray, and may convince her still to get TCM. I toyed with the idea of doing films featuring people we lost on 2016, but I decided against that. There were just too many and life is too short to watch many Nancy Davis films. I’ll throw a couple in the mix when appropriate. Here’s to hoping 2017 goes a little better than 2016.