Sunday, June 25, 2017

Såsom i en spegel

So I watched Through a Glass Darkly off my DVR. It's available on DVD as part of a pricey three-movie Ingmar Bergman set courtesy of the Criterion Collection. I'm glad I've knocked it off my list of to-see movies, but I don't know that I'd spend Criterion Collection money on it. I didn't realize when I watched it that Bergman Week begins tomorrow.

The movie starts off with a bunch of people getting out of the water after going for a swim. It turns out that those four people are the only characters in the movie. Karin (Harriet Andersson) is married to Martin (Max von Sydow), and is visiting her father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård) at the family's summer house on the island of Fårö, off the northern coast of Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea.

Everything seems happy at first, but we quickly realize that there's a lot going on beneath the surface. Karin just got out of the hospital. In fact, it was a mental hospital, and there's the question of whether she's truly cured of her disease, which I don't think the movie openly names but is presumably schizophrenia. Minus is a teenager and going through what nowadays would be considered teen angst. And neither child has as good a relationship with their father as they'd like. Dad is an author who is commercially successful but who feels artistically blocked. Dad goes off to the rest of Europe for various work-related reasons, leaving the kids alone -- you wonder who's taking care of Minus all this time.

Karin starts to act just strangely enough that it's easy to wonder whether this is a relapse. Eventually, she finds her father's diary and reads it, finding out that her schizophrenia is most likely incurable, and that Dad is nuts enough that he wants to chronicle the course of the disease. Minus continues to feel unappreciated. And Karin's behavior continues to become even more erratic.

There's not much action in this movie, but a lot of talk. And talk. And more talk when they're done talking. Frankly, I found it all to be the sort of psychological mumbo-jumbo that people who like to pan foreign movies as being "pretentious" would probably find stereotypical. That having been said, this one isn't anywhere near as bad as Bergman's later Cries and Whispers which I reviewed here some months back. The black-and-white cinematography is also lovely, stark at times and making me want to visit Gotland to see it in living color. (Fårö was a military zone closed to foreigners during the Cold War but is apparently open now.) Ingmar Bergman liked the area so much that he eventually moved there, dying on the island in 2007.

If you're a fan of Bergman, you'll probably enjoy Through a Glass Darkly. If not, I'd suggest starting with something conventional like The Seventh Seal.

Briefs for June 24-25, 2017

I didn't realize that last night was the first night of Tina Fey presenting The Essentials alongside Alec Baldwin. At least, I think it was; I didn't watch the previous Saturday's movie. But there she was, talking about Rear Window and doing a good job of it.

Speaking of Hitchcock, somebody elsewhere posted this story about a Welsh village not named Bodega Bay. Where have we seen this one before? (NB: The source is from the British tabloid The Sun, so who knows just how true the story is? A Google News search, however, does yield the same story in several other sources.)

The local classical music station airs a syndicated program on Saturday mornings about film music. This week's program was dedicated to a documentary I hadn't heard of called Score: A Film Music Documentary. The presenter made it sound as if the film just came out, but in fact it was released last November. I don't think I'll be seeing it any time soon, then, only because it won't be in theaters around here and I don't know that it's available on DVD. I can only imagine the music clearance issues.

When I was looking up the Score documentary to see when it was released and if it was still in theaters, an IMDb search led me to this 2010 movie I had never heard of. Yikes.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Culpepper Cattle Company

I noticed that The Culpepper Cattle Company is coming up on FXM Retro this morning at 9:25 AM and tomorrow morning at 8:05 AM, so I made it a point to watch it off my DVR last night so I could do a review on it here.

Gary Grimes plays Ben Mockridge, a young man in Texas who is ready to make his own way in life as a man. He's heard that Frank Culpepper (Billy Green Bush) is going to be driving a herd of cattle from Texas to Colorado, and Ben is determined to get a job as part of the cattle drive. Of course, he's never done such a thing before, and doesn't know what a cattle drive is really like.

It turns out that a cattle drive is brutal, and if you're not enough of a man, nobody is going to accept you. Things first go bad when somebody rustles a bunch of cattle and the Culpupper crew lose some men in a gunfight to get the cattle back. Ben is sent off to a town well away to recruite replacements, but along the way his horse and gun get stolen by a couple of trappers. He is fortunate, however, to get them back on the way back courtesy of the men he recruited, who seem rather violent.

Then again, everybody in The Culpepper Cattle Company, more or less, is violent, with the exception of Ben and a group of religiously-motivated settlers the cattle drive meets in the run-up to the film's climax. There's one shootout after another, becoming increasingly inexplicable. The last one even has Ben seemingly in the middle, with none of the bad guys thinking to shoot him; it's not as if they have any compunction about shooting everybody else.

I had some big problems with The Culpepper Cattle Company. Not because of the violence, but because the movie never really seemed to be going anywhere. I understand that it's part of the film's point that the cowboy lifestyle wasn't romantic and in fact would have been nasty, brutish, and short. But I found the movie to be incoherent at times, with an ending that makes little sense. Then again, I also have to admit that westerns have never been my favorite genre.

With that last caveat in mind, you may want to watch and judge for yourself. The movie seems to be out of print on DVD, however, although it does seem available from Amazon streaming if you can do that thing.

Friday, June 23, 2017

If I Were a Conventional Blogger

So yesterday's installment of the Thursday Morning Picks blogathon was on "the woods"; wanting to be different I decided to turn the theme on its head by going for people named Wood or Woods. (I suppose I could have used Woody Strode or Woody Allen instead.) Of course, the theme was supposed to be about the forest, and if I had done it that way, I would have had to do some thinking.

That's because the first movie I would have thought of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is one that I already used when the subject was Shakespeare. As you may recall, the characters in the movie are all going through the forest on the way to a wedding when the fairy Puck (Mickey Rooney) puts spells on all of them and makes them fall in love with the wrong people.

I think I would also have used Ring of Fire, a reasonably good drama about a cop (David Janssen) who gets carjacked by thieves on the run, who force him to take them through the forest to their escape. Except that the forest is ridiculously dry, which means there's a risk of forest fire, which unsurprisingly happens. Unfortunately, the print TCM shows is panned and scanned. Sydney Pollack is getting the heebie-jeebies in heaven right now.

And for a third movie? It's been ages since I've seen God's Country and the Woman, one of the earliest three-strip Technicolor movies and possibly the very first to make extensive use of external scenes. I believe this is the movie that Warner Bros. wanted to cast Bette Davis in and she, being sick of the idiotic (in her view) programmers they were giving her, decamped to the UK and sued.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #154: The Woods

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is "The Woods". As a fan of older movies, I've picked three older (well, at least this time one of them was released after I was born) movies that fit the theme:

Brainstorm (1983). The final film of actress Natalie Wood; she drowned in an incident unrelated to the movie halfway through production. Wood plays Karen, the estranged wife of Michael (Christopher Walken), who is developing a sort of virtual reality device. The other inventor of the device (Beatrice Straight) dies suddenly, but not before hooking herself up to the device to record her thoughts as she's dying. Michael knows he just has to see that recording. Karen and Michael also record their own perspectives, which enables them to see the marriage from each other's point of view and save the marriage.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Ed Wood directed this hilariously awful movie about aliens trying to resurrect dead humans as zombies so that the zombies will take over Earth. Or something; the plot is such a mess as is the directing and the production values. But it's one of those movies that fails so spectacularly that it winds up being a blast to watch.

Fog Over Frisco (1934). Donald Woods plays Tony, a reporter pursuing socialite Val (Margaret Lindsay). Val's half-sister Arlene is a bad girl of sorts, hobnobbing with gangsters but engaged to a stockbroker. When Arlene gets her fiancé mixed up in a stock swindle, Arlene goes missing and Tony gets his chance to crack the case wide open. This is, unsurprisingly, Bette Davis' movie, even though she disappears for much of the movie. It's one of those really zippy Warner Bros. programmers; they always seemed to be better at that style of film-making than any of the other studios.

I hope I understood this week's theme correctly....

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sea Spiders

Another short I'm looking forward to on the TCM schedule is Sea Spiders, a little after 11:30 PM, just after This Is Spinal Tap (10:00 PM, 83 min). The listing says 1932 and a look at the lives of Tahitians.

My first thought when I saw that was another Pete Smith short, but looking at the IMDb page, it isn't. In fact, the IMDb page doesn't mention that it's part of any particular series of shorts, which rather surprises me. And speaking of Pete Smith, one short I wouldn't mind seeing on the TCM schedule is one also from 1932 called Color Scales. It's just a trip to an aquarium, but it was done in two-strip Technicolor which looks surprisingly good.

I'm sure some of the Pete Smith shorts have been released on extras of various movies by Warner Home Video, but there doesn't seem to be any box set the way there is with the Traveltalks shorts. I'd guess the interest isn't there; I know I'm generally far more interested in the Traveltalks shorts than the Pete Smith shorts.

I can't find wither Sea Spiders or Color Scales as an extra, either, although that may have something to do with Amazon's search function.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Louis Wolheim night, and a few other things

One of the things I like about TCM is when they have programming blocks dedicated to people who might have been a reasonably big thing back in the day, but who are little remembered now. Star of the Month Audrey Hepburn is well-known, but how many people remember Louis Wolheim? And so TCM is showing a bunch of Wolheim's movies tonight.

I've blogged about three of them before:

The Racket, a silent in which Wolheim plays a gang boss protective of his kid brother, is on at 9:45 PM;
Two Arabian Knights, a silent comedy set in World War I and long thought lost, will be on overnight at 2:30 AM; and
The Silver Horde, with a very young Joel McCrea, finished up the night at 4:15 AM.

For some reason, I thought I had blogged about Danger Lights (11:30 PM) before, but it looks like I'm mixing up a bunch of railroad-themed movies; specifically this one and Other Men's Women, an interesting movie with a young James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Danger Lights is interesting in its own right, with a young Jean Arthur. The climax is a high-speed rail journey to the big city to save an injured man (Wolheim).

I'd also like to mention the short that follows The Silver Horde: Roseland, a little after 5:30 AM. This one stars Ruth Etting, a popular singer of the 1920s and early 1930s who tried her hand at acting thanks to her gangster husband; all of this was the subject of the excellent James Cagney movie Love Me or Leave Me, which I've also blogged about before. Ruth sings here, and if circa-1930 music is your thing it's good. Circa-1930 music isn't really my thing, however.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Secret Agent (1936)

Some years back I bought an ultra-cheap box set of Alfred Hitchcock movies. One of the only sound movies on the set that I hadn't seen before was Secret Agent, so I finally got around to watching it.

The movie starts off in 1916 with a funeral for the author Brodie. The only thing is, we learn after all the people leave the bier that the coffin is, in fact, quite empty. Brodie is not dead, but somebody wants it known that Brodie is dead. That somebody is His Majesty's Secret Service, who have a job for Brodie (John Gielgud). They tell him that there's a problem with the troops on the eastern front, which in this case means the Middle East. The Germans are trying to agitate against the British forces in the region, and are going to send a secret agent from Switzerland to do so. So it's Brodie's job to go to Switzerland, find that agent, and prevent him from getting to the Middle East.

Brodie has been given a new identity, Ashenden, and a new passport, and in Switzerland he's supposed to look for The General (Peter Lorre), a hired assassin who's actually supposed to do the killing. Oh, and to make Ashenden look innocent, he's in Switzerland on holiday with his wife, who is of course another secret agent real name Elsa (Madeleine Carroll, fresh from The 39 Steps).

Well, wouldn't you know it, but both Elsa and the General reach Switzerland before Ashenden, and when he gets to his hotel room he's surprised to find Elsa with... well, not the General, but with Marvin (Robert Young), an American abroad. Ashenden and the General start to search for the agent, but they're thwarted at various turns. And then Ashenden, and especially Elsa, start to wonder whether killing this guy is really something they can do. They're not secret agents by training the way the General is....

Personally, I found Secret Agent to be one of Hitchcock's weaker efforts in the post-Man Who Knew Too Much era. There are obvious Hitchcock touches, and a whole bunch of nice set pieces (one at a church and another in a chocolate factory), but I found the film dragged despite its shortish running time. And I didn't feel quite the emotional attachment for the characters as I do in other Hitchcock movies. Part of that may be intentional, deliberately showing how dehumanizing spy work can be. But Peter Lorre badly overacts and makes his character irritating. I also didn't like what seemed to be a deus ex machina ending, even if it can be plausibly explained (if, for example, you assume Elsa sent a telegraph to Britain and they were able to notify folks in the east).

Still, Hitchcock completists (now I've got just a bunch of silents to watch) will want to watch it. And as always, judge for yourself.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Something for the Boys

One of my recent DVD purchases was a Carmen Miranda box set, and among the movies on it I hadn't reviewed here before is Something For the Boys.

Carmen here plays Chiquita Hart, a defense plant worker in Indiana at the start of the movie -- you can tell this is one of those World War II movies. She's one of three Hart cousins, the other two being showgirl Blossom (Vivian Blaine) and schemer Harry (Phil Silvers), which makes you wonder about the family tree if these three are married to each other. (Well, they're cousins, so various siblings a generation above could just have married oddly.) Anyhow, the three all find out that their grandfather has died, leaving them an inheritance! Chiquita, for her part, finds out through radio broadcasts she receives because working at the defense plant has left just the right combination of metal residue in her dental work or something; it's a running joke used later in the movie.

Anyhow, the three cousins who don't know each other at the start of the movie have to travel down to Georgia to receive their inheritance, as Grandpa had one of those big old plantation houses. And when I say old, I mean old, as it's fallen on hard times and sorely in need of a renovation. And there's no money for that; they've only inherited the house. But they're in luck. The house is near an army base, and Sgt. Fulton (Michael O'Shea) comes over from the base to visit. Everybody gets the idea that the house would be a perfect place for soldiers' wives to stay so they can be close to their husbands while they're at the base. It's an income stream for the cousins, and a win win for the soldiers and their wives. Plus, the soldiers can do the work fixing up the place. And, unsurprisingly, Sgt. Fulton and Blossom fall in love along the way.

But there are complications. Sgt. Fulton has a girl in his past, Melanie (Sheila Ryan). He's probably willing to dump her, since she seems to be really high-maintenance, but she thinks she's his fiancée, and dammit, she's going to run everything in everybody's life. She gets to the manor and decides it's hers, trying to tell the cousins what they should be doing. Why they don't just throw her out of the place then and there makes no sense, but Melanie does more or less disappear toward the end. The other complication is that the place gets declared off-limits to the soldiers because Harry is running a craps game, and then the army wants to use it for war games.

In and among all this, there are a lot of musical numbers, although they're the sort of songs that for the most part aren't memorable. Perry Como plays one of the singing soldiers, which should tell you something about the songs. And the plot is a bit of a mess too. Finally, it doesn't help that the Phil Silvers character is constantly irritating.

The DVD itself, however, is a lovely transfer, with very nice Technicolor. This particular DVD has a couple of trailers, one with scenes from the movie and one with just title cards. There's also a Carmen Miranda documentary that I haven't watched. The cover art, however, leaves something to be desired, as the blurb on the back mentions a song I didn't hear, and claims that the house is in Texas, when it's clearly in Georgia. One of the songs is even titled "Eighty Miles Outside of Atlanta", for heaven's sake.

I picked up the box set for The Gang's All Here, figuring that everything else would be a bonus. Something for the Boys isn't quite my thing, but people who like World War II musicals will probably enjoy it.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Old Glory

The ghost of Uncle Sam about to teach Porky Pig a lesson in Old Glory (1939)

I have a feature to blog about, but not really the time to write a full-length post on it, so I decided to look through the shorts on some of my DVDs to see if I could find anything worth blogging about. It turns out that on the disc of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex that's part of the box set I bought (the same one with Dodge City), there's the interesting animated short Old Glory>

I was surprised that Warner Home Video would include a Porky Pig short on one of these cheap DVDs, but then this isn't a typical short that would have any of the Looney Tunes characters. Porky Pig starts off trying to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance (no Bellamy salute here) but, being bored with it, decides to take a nap.

Porky then has a dream sequence involving a rotoscoped Uncle Sam (voiced by Shepperd Strudwick), who teaches Porky about parts of American history that made America the bastion of liberty it is today (well, the bastion of liberty it was in 1939). All of these scenes are rotoscoped, and feature Patrick Henry (John Litel, who had played Patrick Henry in Give Me Liberty; that earlier short is in fact the source of Litel's audio here), George Washington, Paul Revere, and the Lincoln Memorial.

The rotoscoping is one of the things that makes this a strange short by Warner Bros. standards. None of the standard Chuck Jones stuff we'd see, even though he did direct. Having said that, the rotoscope animation is excellent and makes the short visually arresting to watch.

The other thing about it that's so strange is the utter lack of humor. That's by design; it's not as if the jokes failed as sometimes seems to happen when watching things 70 or 80 years after they were made. This is a straight-up patriotic history lesson, with obvious propaganda overtones.

The final interesting thing is that this came out in 1939. It's the sort of material that would have been extremely obvious to make three years later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into World War II. It would fit in with other shorts like MGM's You, John Jones! But this one was released in July 1939, before the war begain in Europe. Granted, there's no open propaganda about any of America's future enemies. But still, this all seemed a bit out of place.

Not that the short is terrible if you know what you're getting into. As I said above, the rotoscoping is excellent. But if you're looking for Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes humor, you're not getting it. Then again, Elizabeth and Essex is worth the price, so this extra is a bonus.