Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Back in 1870’s there were these Ambesons, see, and boy were they magnificent. That is to say, they were rich and the height of polite society. Young Eugene (Joseph Cotten) is in love with the beautiful Isabel Amberson, but he broke his cello so she married someone else. I'm not sure I completely understand that part. Anyhow, Eugene also gets married, raises a daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) and becomes a widower. A successful inventor, he starts courting the now middle-aged Isabel while her husband hides in his bedroom. Isabel’s atrocious son takes a fancy to Lucy but not her dad. Years later he would prospect for gold with Humphrey Bogart.

Orson Welles’ follow up to Citizen Kane, he adapted the story, directed, and narrated it (including the closing credits). RKO, wanting a conventional money-maker, re-edited the film while Orson was in Brazil. They shot a new, happier ending and removed about fifty minutes. I would like to have seen the more somber version but maybe not at the cost of another hour of my life. At 88 minutes, I didn’t find myself needing to watch more.

Like Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is a visually impressive film. With interesting use of shadow, and layered mise en scene, it’s photography feels like a refined version of the previous film. But because of how dull the story is, I had to remind myself to pay attention. In the third act is an impressive long take where atrocious George is saying goodbye forever to pretty Lucy while she pretends not to care. At about two minutes fifty, it's an amazing shot and Anne Baxter was amazing in it. And there are other aspects to the story worth exploring, but it simply wasn't that interesting.

I needed to watch the film a second time to fully understand what's going on, but I don’t find myself wanting to. Very mannered and cinemagraphic, but something of a bore. AMRU 3.
“Well, that’s a horse on me.”

Saturday, April 25, 2020

From Hell it Came (1957)

The film begins with a tasteful and culturally sensitive depiction of a pacific island ceremony. The actors all appear to be of Polynesian descent, that is to say, brunettes. They are selecting a new chief in the traditional manner, by killing the old chief’s son after framed him for murder. The son curses the new chief and as you know, these things are binding.

There are also Americans here. They are trying to cure the natives of a plague that has gripped the island. Also, checking out the nuclear fallout that drifted there, which isn’t a real problem and totally not their fault! Anyhow these backwards and simple natives distrust the fine, upstanding Americans, blaming them for their troubles.

The film introduces Linda Watkins in only her seventh feature film appearance. She sports an English accent that is totally spot-on. Spot-on, I tell you! It’s unclear why she’s even there. The team is led by Doctor Arnold who is in love with the pretty Terry (also a doctor, but a woman). She doesn’t want to settle down and live a traditional life, instead opting to do her silly doctor research stuff. Will she ever learn and catch a man? She should marry the elderly and alcoholic Doctor Arnold so she can wash his skid marks while he does his doctor research stuff. You know, tradition!

Anyhow, back at the grave, there is a strange tree stump. Strange because it wasn’t there the day before. Also because it has a face and a human heartbeat. Anyhow, our heroes decide to cut it free from its roots and take it back to the lab for study. It seems to be dying, maybe because it was cut from its roots. So, Terry pretends to be a doctor, because she is, and gives it an IV of her special formula X-37. That’s right. They gave a tree stump an IV. I would have top dressed it with compost, but what do I know. Anyhow, it crashes out of the lab and terrorizes the natives, who call it Tabanga, Creature of Revenge. Our heroes use the scientifically appropriate term ‘Monster’. Can the white people save the day?

This Drive-In fodder is little different from others in the sub-genre but seems more hostile than most towards the natives. Also, it’s interesting how they want to use nuclear fallout (“devil dust”) as a possible cause while tip-toeing around Americans taking the blame. In the end the actual nature of the creature is not resolved. Maybe the filmmakers wanted the viewer to decide for themselves, or maybe they didn’t care.

From Hell it Came is fun nonsense. Full of continuity errors, bad acting (sometimes horrible acting), and outdated attitudes. But at least if you become confused, the characters will drop into exposition mode to explain it all. Our heroes don't behave at all logically, the natives make Tarzan appear sophisticated, and the monster, while cool in a retro 50's way, was utterly unfrightening. And as far as this film is concerned, AMRU 2.5. Sadly, more enjoyable than anything I've seen recently.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948)

Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) grows tired of life in the big city so he decides, against the advice of his lawyer (Melvyn Douglas), to buy a farm in Connecticut. It’s an overpriced pile of junk, of course, so he and his wife (Myrna Loy) decide to sink even more money and build the house of their dreams.

Mr. Blandings touches on the post-war dream of owning a home. America moved in droves from urban areas into the suburbs, setting the stage for the 50’s sitcom. Here the humor is in how dysfunctional the Blandings' tiny New York apartment is for them and their two girls. See Jim try to get dressed and ready for work before noontime. See Jim try to find things in their tiny closet. Comedy gold. Still had room for a live-in maid. Oh, hi Louise Beavers.

Later, the humor is how dysfunctional they are in making rational decisions. In addition to being oversold on a 35 acre farm by the realtor (oh, hi Ian Wolfe), they are taken by every contractor they hire. This is compounded by their insistence of making ridiculous design choices pushing the final price skyward. Douglas’ Bill is the Casandra, his dire warnings being ignored at every turn. Fun, fun. Let’s add in a possible love triangle.

I did not find Mr. Blandings charming, nor did I find it funny. All of the problems stem from the stupidity of the main characters, and I didn’t want Grant and Loy to be dumb. Simply put, they were too old to be this naive. And Grant, what with his fancy Manhattan advertising position, had to be at least a little savvy. I mean, he earned enough for him to afford the spiraling costs, even if he had to do a little tizzy act each time the price went up. I love the actors, but the story falls flat. AMRU 2.5.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

The guys go to clubs, do drugs, and cruise for chicks, but all Tony (John Travolta) wants to do is dance. And win some stupid dive bar dance competition. When he notices a middle aged woman dancing better than his partner he ditches his … I don’t know, girlfriend? and tries to get Stephanie to partner up. But she’s all sophisticated and everything, and gets to meet all these celebrities. Will love bloom? Hope not.

I was too young to see Saturday Night Fever when it came out, but could not mistake its impact. I cannot overstate how much of a cultural touchstone this film was. Coming out towards the end of the Disco era, it became the pop culture image of the 70’s dance club scene for mainstream America. Travolta, the breakout star of Welcome Back, Carter, was now a bona fide superstar. After Grease the following year, nothing could stop his career. Except, maybe, a decade and a half of crappy movies.

My wife does not care for old movies. In fact, with very few exceptions, she hates them. But she loves Glee, and when Finn was struggling with his future, Mr. Schuester suggested he watch Saturday Night Fever. Tony’s drive and ambition to dance inspired Finn to … I really don’t know, Glee is my wife’s thing. We both were game to give it a try. Anyhow, Schuester should have been fired. And arrested. SNF is no film for a high school kid looking for inspiration, even if he was 30.

What starts with a young man taking his favorite can of paint for a walk becomes a story of directionless, inarticulate young men going through life without learning lessons. I’ve watched and liked films with inarticulate main characters (Rocky) but I’ve never before watched a movie filled with such hatefully stupid people, unable to express even the simplest idea. The frustration listening to this dialog was beyond the pail. But it gets worse.

Our ‘hero’ treats his old dance partner terribly then acts jealous when she threatens to see someone else. His new dance partner agrees to compete but wants no personal relationship, so he acts jealous. She was ten years older than Travolta and looked every bit of it. Worse still, she wasn’t much of a dancer, especially compared to Tony. They have no chemistry and their whole relationship makes no sense. But it gets worse.

Played by the adorable Donna Pescow, Tony’s ex Annette is easily the most likable character in the film. Stupid like the rest, but likable. While Tony sits uninterested in the front seat of the car, Annette is literally gang-raped in the back seat. He later calls her a slut. The shit this film flings at her is unconscionable, and there is no indication that it doesn’t think she deserves it.

A musical lives and dies on the quality of the music, and while this is not a musical, it is at the center of Saturday Night Fever. But even if you hate disco music, it’s still the best part of this film. What further keeps it from being at the absolute bottom is the occasional glimpse of an intelligent, hidden hand. The disillusioned priest, the control dynamic between Stephanie and her former boyfriend, then between her and Tony. The inference that maybe we were never meant to identify with Tony, that this is a cautionary tale. Is there more than the surface story? No, this is Jersey Shore: 70’s Disco edition.

One can make an argument that Tony learns. He doesn’t hate Hispanics anymore. He moves to fancy Manhattan and wants more from life. He agrees to just be friends with Stephanie. But, no, he doesn’t. His grand epiphany about racism is marred by committing his own sexual assault. He is still the same piece of trash he was at the beginning. The film would have been better if the entire cast jumped off a bridge in the first act. AMRU 1.5.

Monday, April 13, 2020

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

Waitress Mary (Constance Bennett) is determined to break into the pictures. She waits on famed drunken director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), weasels her way into an audition, and impresses a producer. The studio promotes her as their next big star. As her star rises, Max’ fades.

Sound familiar? That’s because major beats of this film were lifted for A Star is Born (1937), also produced by David O. Selznick, whom the original writers threatened to sue. Director George Cukor refused the 1937 version because of how similar the story was. He changed his tune in 1954. The only real difference here is that our Star doesn’t marry our charming drunk, who is a director rather than a performer. Other than that, we are talking about only a slight reimagining.

Star Mary’s love interest is played by Neil Hamilton. If the name is not familiar, people my age will immediately recognize his voice as the young, dashing Commissioner Gordon. He is smitten by Mary but struggles with her Hollywood friends and lifestyle. Their first date does not age well. Louise Beavers plays Mary’s maid, the only role legally allowed a chubby black woman back then. Surprisingly, this is the eighth film I’ve seen her in with a ninth coming soon. She was also in What Price Innocence? Were the rules of grammar different in the 1930’s?

I went into What Price Hollywood? with low expectations. It’s the lesser known version of a story I already knew. But as much as I liked Fredric March in his version, it's Constance Bennett who really shines here. But that's not to take anything away from Lowell Sherman. He was charming and charismatic as the tragic Max Carey. Lowell will tragically die less than two years later, his films mostly forgotten. It is unavoidable to compare the two films, and this one is wittier, snappier, and all around superior. I found the characters smart and likable, and that's a good thing. AMRU 3.5.
Mary: Why do you drink all the time? Can't you cut the heavy swilling?
Max: What, and be bored all the time?

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962)

Dashing Dr. Bill is assisting his father in the worlds most bloodless surgery. When the patient dies, Dr. Bill uses that and an opportunity to introduce the obligatory ‘Doctor Playing God’ conversation. You see, organ transplants will someday become as common and blood transfusions. Wow, what solid science for a movie that features a living, disembodied head that can talk without the benefit of vocal cords or lungs.

Anyhow, Bill’s assistant calls saying he needs him to see what’s in the closet. So, he takes his fiancee Jan to his country mansion/evil laboratory. Because he drives like a maniac, he crashes the car. Thrown free, he goes back to the car to find his dear love’s mangled body. So, he takes her head and walks the rest of the way.

Still with me? Ok, so let’s sum up. Jan’s head is conscious and sitting in a baking pan. Igor-character is a fellow surgeon who lost an arm Dr. Bill replaced, not entirely successfully (you can’t be a surgeon with only one arm). And the thing in the closet was built using random stitched together parts. The main story line is of Dr. Bill, searching for a hot body to put his gal’s head on while Jan, feeling no compassion (she has no heart, you see), uses a new-found power to communicate with the thing in the closet. This power is called TALKING! Which, in retrospect, actually IS a super power as SHE HAS NO LUNGS!

There are two elements that drive this film. The horror that is Jan’s head, and the exploitation aspect of Bill’s search for a hot young replacement bod. But Jan’s head isn’t horrifying at all, though the characters think it should be. In fact, it looks quite silly. And the body search is mostly a waste of screen time. Bill twice bails on a subject because of a potential witness. Eventually he finds a recluse cheesecake model with a facial scar. Win-win.

Monster in the Closet was played by the Jewish Giant, 7’7” Eddie Carmel. When we finally see him, his makeup is pretty effective. Eddie did what anyone else with a glandular condition did back in the day: take odd monster roles, work as a wrestler, tour with a circus, then die tragically young. So it goes. Jan’s Virginia Leith hated the role so much, she refused to return for post production. In one scene she laughs off screen and it sounds nothing like her. There is a version of the film where our cheesecake model poses in the nude. It’s available on Prime. I saw the standard release on TCM.

Anyhow, this direct-to-drive-in release needs to have the bad people punished and the natural law being restored, and that’s what happens. Almost. It is remembered because of how ridiculous it is. Fun, dumb, and short. My take-away is how a film could have such good insight about transplants and medical research be so stupid with it’s principle science. And, in the end, the message is No, doctors shouldn’t do research to further understanding. But it’s not so bad. Fun, dumb, and short. Besides what can you expect for a film shot in less than two weeks. AMRU 2.5.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Killing (1956)

Ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is getting together a team to rob a racetrack. They could put you away just as fast for a $10 heist as they can for a million dollar job. So might as well go big.

The Killing is a pure heist movie. Cool and in command, we watch Johnny plan, organize, and execute the heist in almost documentary style. Few details are revealed until the job begins. We just see the pieces put into place. There is voice over narration that reads like a police blotter.

Many characters are introduced over the first act. Elisha Cook Jr. is here of course, ex-wrestler Kola Kwariani needed subtitles to be understood, Rodney Dangerfield is visible in a crowd scene, but most bizarre is the performance of Timothy Carey. Carey had a strange career. A method actor, he would improvise to a ridiculous degree. I’m surprised that Kubrick used him twice considering his reputation for control. A little later in his career there were directors who were afraid of him. Here he has a small role, hired to shoot a horse. He smooth-talks a parking lot attendant who starts hanging around. His line delivery is nothing short of confounding.

I struggled with this film for the first act. The storytelling and performances were odd and not very noir-like. There are many moving pieces with little explanation. The cuts from stock footage to the sets were jarring and took me out of the movie. Also the narration was distracting. But as the film progressed and the caper became clear, I became interested.

The influence of this film on directors like Quentin Tarantino is very apparent. The lunch table scene from Reservoir Dogs is taken almost verbatim. The gun hidden in the bathroom is also familiar. Here Sterling Hayden’s character gets it and in The Godfather Sterling Hayden’s character “gets it”.

I must give Kubrick some slack. The film was fairly low budget without much studio support, and the dragnet-esque narration was a studio demand. In the end, it’s a strange, complex, and interesting film, and totally worth watching again. However, maybe because of the more conventional tone, I liked The Killers a smidge better. AMRU 4.
“You'd be killing a horse - that's not first degree murder, in fact it's not murder at all, in fact I don't know what it is.”

Friday, April 3, 2020

Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

A publishing executive (Clark Gable) and his wife (Myrna Loy) are madly in love, but odd circumstances lead her to question his relationship with his secretary (Jean Harlow). After all, she’s Jean Harlow.

I selected this film because it sounded like silly nonsense. Nonsense with huge start power. But Larry Karaszewski did a Trailers from Hell video on it saying it was far smarter than the title implied. And it was.

We can forgive Loy’s Linda for reaching her conclusion. She isn’t jealous by nature and we see the bits of misinformation that leads her astray. Even though it’s all innocent (not a spoiler), her conclusion is quite reasonable. And it doesn’t help that her mother-in-law doesn’t doubt it for a moment. Plus, Gable’s Van is terrible at explanations. Even the perfect wife can have doubts.

Gable is exuberant and energetic as young Gable was. Always fun to watch. I was always mystified with the collective infatuation with Jean Harlow, figuring it mostly a product of her early demise. Here, though, she is quite charming as the dedicated secretary. Maybe I found her so much more likable because she wasn’t playing trashy. Jimmy Stewart was her would-be fiance. Gloria Holden had a small role. She always gave me that weird feeling.

If I were to criticize anything about the film it would be that they didn’t stick the landing. Not totally. I suppose Linda realized that she was wrong. I wish that point was more clear, but that’s picking nits. Wife vs. Secretary is clever, witty, and charming all the way through. The leads bubble with chemistry and its a fun ride. Way better than its title. AMRU 4.
“You’re a fool, for which I am grateful.”