Monday, February 27, 2017

Radio station Oscar trivia

So somebody at work mentioned during the lunch break that they were trying to win concert tickets or something and were able to call in to the radio station whereupon they had to answer a trivia question. That question just happened to be Oscar-related: Who is the only person named Oscar to win an Oscar?

Now, the guy told us this after he had called in, which was during the morning break, so it's not as though there was anybody to help him. But I thought about the question for several seconds, and came up with the right answer. And then I thought, what movie did this Oscar win for? The second question, it turns out, is rather harder; the next answer is in the next paragraph and should be spoiled if I've formatted the HTML correctly. You'll have to highlight the text to read it:

Oscar Hammerstein II is the Oscar-winner. Now, figuring out what he won for was more difficult since he was a lyricist and original songs have to be, well, original. All those musicals he wrote with Richard Rodgers? The ones that premiered on Broadway wouldn't be eligible for the Oscars. It turns out that Hammerstein won two Oscars, for co-writing the song "The Last Time I Saw Paris" from Lady Be Good (with Jerome Kern) in 1941; and then for the sont "It Might As Well Be Spring" from the 1945 version of State Fair (with Richard Rodgers). Oscar Homolka was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for I Remember Mama but lost, which I knew; there were two screenwriters named Oscar who were nominated but lost. And there's on Oskar, Oskar Werner, who was nominated but lost for Ship of Fools.

Bill Paxton, 1955-2017

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the deat of Bill Paxton, who died on Saturday of complications from surgery aged 61. Paxton had a long career as a supporting actor, in a bunch of films that are blind spots, and a few I really have no desire to see again. Why did I sit through the '97 Titanic, for example?

Paxton's career was also quite varied. Among the early movies are The Terminator and Weird Science, before showing up in the 90s in the westerns Tombstone (as Morgan Earp) and Frank and Jesse (as Frank James). And then there are the prestige films, like Titanic (much as I hate it) and Apollo 13. And big-budget stuff like Twister. Apparently, storm chasers honored Paxton yesterday.

Maybe one of these years I'll get around to seeing a bunch of his movies.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dangerous Dan McFoo

Some months back I purchased an Errol Flynn box set (it's also available at the TCM Shop) for a couple of the movies. I watched Dodge City this morning, and will probably review it later in the week. One of the extras on the Dodge City DVD was a Merrie Melodies short called Dangerous Dan McFoo.

The first thing to notice is that this was directed by Tex Avery, who directed cartoons at Warner Bros. before Chuck Jones came along and Tex left for MGM. Because of this, there are none of the Looney Tunes characters and the cartoon as a very different visual look from the Chuck Jones cartoons at Warner Bros. The action as set at some saloon in the northern part of the Old West in the dead of winter, where it's snowing heavily. Dan, voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan, sounds a lot like Elmer Fudd, in no small part because it was Bryan who voiced Elmer Fudd up until his death and Mel Blanc's taking over the part. Dan, and most of the rest of the characters, look like dogs.

As for Dan, he's a little short guy, in love with Sue. Then another guy (unnamed, but voiced by Mel Blanc) comes into the saloon, sees Sue, and imagines her as Warner Bros. contract player Bette Davis. This is, in fact, a photo of Bette cropped onto the character's head, and not an animator's representation of Bette, which is another interesting thing. The ne guy challenges Dan for Sue's hand; Sue obviously supports Dan. This being a one-reel animated short, that's pretty much all there is.

Dangerous Dan McFoo was released in 1939, the same year as Dodge City. The cartoon, predating Looney Tunes, very much has the feel of other 1930s cartoons. It's very staid; in fact I think it was the introduction of the Looney Tunes characters that resulted in cartoon characters being more manic and wisecracking. That makes it feel old-fashioned, but even the Disney cartoons of the era -- including the ones with Mickey Mouse and the other recognizable characters -- seem genteel by later standards. The visual look, as I mentioned above, is also not like what you're probably used to since for the most part we grew up with post-war Looney Tunes cartoons on TV. It's really jarring to hear Elmer Fudd's voice coming out of Dan.

I'm glad, however, that Dangerous Dan McFoo was on this DVD. It's a look at an era of animation we don't get to see all that much.

She Likes Movies

Now that I'm participating regularly in the Thursday Movie Picks blogathon, I'm finding blogs of other people who are also participating in the blogathon. Some of them are interesting enough to ad to the blogroll. This week, that blog is She Likes Movies. A blog post about Icelandic movies? Interesting.

As always, the way to wind up on my blogpost is to write a blog that's both interesting, and updated relatively regularly.

I intend to have another post up today, but the mext movie I was looking to watch off my DVR is in fact out of print on DVD so that post went right out the window. And then the next one I looked up is out of print, too. That and my weekday work schedule means I don't stay up too awfully late on weekends. I think I'll finally watch one of my DVDs, I've probably got about 20 movies I haven't watched. Heck, some of them I haven't even unwrapped.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A not-so-fine pair

I was looking through my DVR to see which of the unwatched movies on it were avilable on DVD for me to write a post about. Among them was A Fine Pair, which has received a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive. I don't think I'd spend that kind of money on this movie, however.

The movie starts off with one of those obviously 1960s scores, this one courtesy of Ennio Morricone, and scenes of an airplane landing in New York. Italian woman Esmeralda Marini (Claudia Cardinale) goes through customs, and then gets in a cab and orders it to follow another car! She winds up at police headquarters. The man she was following is Capt. Mike Harmon (Rock Hudson), whom she had met in Italy a dozen years earlier when he was working with her late father, also a police detective.

It turns out that she has a reason for seeing Harmon again after all these years. She was stupid enough to become a crook, engaging in a jewel heist. Not just that, but a particularly daring jewel heist, robbing the villa of the Fairchild family in lovely Kitzbühel, Austria. The Fairchilds are back in New York for the time being, and Esmeralda has decided she's got remorse about being involved in the heist. So she figures that the best way to get out of it is to put the jewels back, Jack of Diamonds style. That way, when the Fairchilds return, nobody will be any the wiser. A good police detective like Harmon is the only person who could get around the alarm system, which, combined with their previous relationship, is why she's picked him. (He's married, now, of course, although we never see his wife.)

So Harmon goes off to Austria with Esmeralda, falling in love with her along the way. He learns about the alarm system, and eventually comes up with some ridiculous plot to defeat it, which involves heating the room to 194 degrees Fahrenheit (I think that's what he said; one of the IMDb reviewers lists it as 134 degrees), making it like a sauna. But if he had to heat the room up like that, why wouldn't the alarm go off at room temperature, or while it was being heated up? It's all an excuse to get Cardinale to strip down to her bra in a scene filmed through an orange filter.

But the plot to put the jewels back works, and we're not even an hour into the movie! What's going on here? Of course, this means we have a twist, which is that Esmeralda tells Mark that she committed another heist in Rome. So off to Rome we go. But we also learn that perhaps getting into the Fairchild villa was a ruse so that Esmeralda could actually rob it. It all gets needlessly complicated with a bunch of twists and turns that continue once the action leaves Austria.

It's those twists and turns that make the movie a huge mess and ultimately a flop. Well, that's the big reason, I think; there's actually a lot more wrong. Esmeralda is such an annoying compulsive liar that I can't imagine anybody liking her. Even though the scenes at the Fairchild villa are over by the hour mark of the movie, the movie already then feels a lot longer than it is. And then there's the TCM print I watched. IMDb lists a running time of 113 minutes, which is also what's mentioned for the DVD release. The print TCM showed only ran 89 minutes, so I have no idea what was in the 24 minutes that were cut. Also, the print was panned-and-scanned down from 1.85:1 to 1.33:1, so the cinematography that should be lovely looks terrible. Jack of Diamonds is stylish and charming, if a mess; A Fine Pair is just a mess.

I'm sorry to say that I just didn't like A Fine Pair at all. I do like to say judge for yourself, and I suppose it would be nice if this had wound up in a box set of heist movies, or Rock Hudson movies, or something. But at the Warner Archive price?

Friday, February 24, 2017

23 Paces to Baker Street

I watched 23 Paces to Baker Street off my DVR recently because I knew it was coming up on the FXM Retro schedule. In fact there are two airings: today at 11:15 AM and tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM.

The movie starts with Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) dictating into a tape recorder in his flat in London. Obviously he's a writer of some sort; although we never see the outcome of his writing we learn pretty quickly that he's a playwright, and that his latest play was a hit on the other side of the Atlantic and is now being produced in London. We also learn that he went blind from some sort of accident. This blindness has turned him bitter, because he had a fiancée in the States, one Miss Jean Lennox (Vera Miles), whom he dumped after going blind because who'd want a blind guy like him? Anyhow, Phillip leaves his secretary Bob (Cecil Parker) to do up the typing while Phillip nips off to the pub down the street.

While at the pub, Phillip sits next to a glass wall dividing two parts of the pub, so we can see two people come in on the other side, and start talking. Phillip only hears part of the conversation, but it's clear that the woman in the conversation is being asked to do something that she doesn't want, and something that sounds as though it could be criminal! And since Hollywood has the trope of the blind man who can see more than all the sighted people put together, we know that Phillip's belief that there's a criminal plot afoot is going to be borne out to be true. This even though he goes to the police and is rebuffed.

Phillip is undeterred, and sets out to stop the crime himself, with the help of Bob, who can see and follow a nursemaid who might have something to do with the plot, as well as Jean, who clearly still carries a torch for Phillip, having come all the way over from the States at a time when transatlantic travel wasn't so easy to be here. Of course, it's not an easy search, as this nursemaid could be working for any of dozens of people. It also doesn't take all that long for the bad guys to figure out that somebody is on to them, leading to one killing and another attempted killing. But will Phillip be able to stop the plot before it happens?

Actually, the part of the story about uncovering the criminal plot is wrapped up a good 10 minutes before the end of the movie, except that one member isn't caught, giving us ample time to have a climax reminiscent of the later Wait Until Dark. But you know that Phillip is going to survive and wind up with Jean, because Hollywood wouldn't give us a movie that offed him after making him the unbelieved hero for the rest of the film.

If 23 Paces to Baker Street has problems, it's that it's treading territory that's all too familiar. I mentioned the trope of the blind man who sees more than everybody else; there's also the trope of the person nobody believes, but is of course right, and the nefarious plot, and Hollywood's stereotypes of London. That having been said, everybody plays their parts well and the result is a movie that works without being anything special. I think you'll be entertained, but left with a feeling that there are movies out there that are a lot better.

There's one other problem, and that's that the print FXM showed the last time they ran it was panned and scanned from Cinemascope (which we see in the opening credits) down to 4:3. The movie did get a DVD release from the Fox MOD scheme, and is even on Blu-Ray. Amazon reviews say that the DVD is panned-and-scanned; I can't tell about the recent Blu-Ray release.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #137: TV Superheroes and Superpowers

This being Thursday, it's time for another Thursday Movie Picks, run by the Wandering Through the Shelves blog. This week is a TV edition. Normally I don't know that I would take part in a TV edition since I don't watch much episodic TV any more. But the theme is Superheroes and Superpowers, and I had some fun thinking of old TV shows and looking for clips on Youtube:

(The New Adventures of) Wonder Woman (1975-1979). Lynda Carter spinning. What more needs to be said? This one showed up on MeTV on Saturday nights some time back -- heck, it might still be there as I haven't paid that much attention to the schedule. I know The Rifleman is on during Saturday dinner and The Love Boat during Sunday dinner, but that's about it. Lynda Carter played the superhero who changed into her skimpy outfit by doing a ballet/figure skating spin, combined with ultra cheesy music and effects. But with Lynda Carter, what's not to love?

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970). Barbara Eden in those skimpy outfits. Well, genies aren't superheroes, but she certainly had supernatural powers that mere mortals don't. Oh, and as a kid watching syndicated rerums, I noticed that they had that guy from Dallas. I also recognized the name of the show's creator, Sidney Sheldon, from trashy novels like "Rage of Angels" (full disclosure: I've never actually read any of Sheldon's novels; I just recognize the names from the advertisements). It was only much later that I learned Sheldon won a screenwriting Oscar for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). Lucy Lawless and Renée O'Connor are both lovely to look at in outfits that seem inspired by the tunics male leads wore in all those old Hollywood sword and sandal epics. I don't think anybody was actually supposed to take this one seriously.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Another set of movies I've blogged about before, February 22-23, 2017

Normally, I like to mention the movies that are coming up on FXM Retro after being off the channel for a while, what with their habit of running a movie into the ground, locking it away for a longer period, and then taking it back out of their vaults to run it into the ground again. I have no idea how effective this programming strategy is, but then I'm not in the TV business. But considering the number of movies I've blogged about, it shouldn't surprise me that there are a lot on the TCM schedule that I've already blogged about.

I thought I had blogged about The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond before, but a search of the blog claims I've only mentioned it once, back in 2010. I think I wouldn't have seen the movie since that airing either, so I don't really want to do a full-length post on it at this point. Too long since I've seen it. Anyhow, it's coming up on TCM at 12:30 PM today

Roman Holiday comes up at 8:00 PM, and is a great selection for the "start of prime time" slot, I think. It's been almost eight years since I blogged about it, although I think I may have watched since, in whatever year, Essentials Jr. had the child actress co-hosting. How long has that been? The franchise was even discontinued last summer. But it's a great movie and certainly suitable for older kids. (Younger kids may find it has a relative lack of action.)

Roman Holiday is followed by the Pete Smith short Seeing Hands, which I think is one of the best of the series. It's about a blind man who wound up being able to do his part in the war effort thanks to his seeing-eye dog.

I'm also looking forward to another airing of Sadie Thompson, although it's one I haven't blogged about. It'll be on early tomorrow morning at 5:00 AM. It is, I think, the first screen version of the Somerset Maugham story which would eventually get titled Rain; under that title there was a prominent early 1930s movie with Joan Crawford. Here, Gloria Swanson plays the title role, a woman of ill repute fleeing the US who winds up stuck on a South Pacific island and raising passion in all the men in her life, including the man of the cloth who's trying to reform her. I've also mentioned the story in the form of the race movie Dirty Gertie from Harlem, USA.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

So Miloš Forman turned 85 over the weekend

I didn't realize that director Miloš Forman, who started his career in Communist Czechoslovakia before fleeing to the west and making such classic movies as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, had a big birthday over the weekend. The folks at Radio Prague, unsurprisingly, did know, and ran a piece on it.

The piece is an interview with a British author, Peter Hames, who wrote a book (I haven't read it) on the Czechoslovak New Wave, of which Forman was a part. The interview covers Forman's work both in Czechoslovakia and Hollywood, and is generally interesting and informative, certainly I'd think for people who don't know much about Forman. I liked his comments about Loves of a Blonde and especially The Firemen's Ball, and agree with the author that especially in the latter movie the universality of Forman's humor comes out.

If you want to listen to the interview, the page linked above offers a streaming option. There's also a link to download the MP3 file here; that link is about 5.0MB and a little under six minutes. And as usual Radio Prague's articles are transcripts of the story.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Florence Foster Jenkins

I don't go to the movie theater very often, but when I had an afternoon off last summer, I took the chance to watch Florence Foster Jenkins. With it being up for a couple of Oscars this week, and with it now available on DVD, I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

It's based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins (played by Merrill Streep), a musical prodigy who when she was about 9 or 10 years old performed a piano recital in the Rutherford Hayes-era White House. However, she contracted syphilis from her first husband when they got married, and that led to hand injuries that scuppered any piano career. She became a patron of the arts and fancied herself a singer.

Most of that, however, is backstory to where the movie begins, which is in 1944. Jenkins and her second, common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) run a private club that puts on elaborate performances called tableaux vivants that to me look like a high-class version of vaudeville, but that's beside the point. St. Clair also manages the occasion recital for Florence, which is by invitation only. The reason why these recitals are invitation-only is because Florence turns out to be the world's worst singer. (Whether she knew it and was in on the joke, or whether she was truly serious, is a question for some debate.)

St. Clair manages Florence's career, as well has her personal life, trying to shield Florence from any criticism, and dealing with Florence's advancing syphilis. Meanwhile, St. Clair has a woman on the side, since he and Florence have a tacit agreement that he can never have sex with her, what with that syphilis. How aware she was of any such relationship (represented here by Rebecca Ferguson as Kathleen) is probably a matter for debate too. And then there's getting a new accompanist for Florence. All the pianists are horrified by her singing and most of them don't play in her style, such as it is. The only one who can is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), although he's quite frankly incredulous that Florence plans to sing.

While St. Clair goes off to Long Island to spend some quality time with Kathleen, Florence decides to surprise him. First, she makes some recordings, ostensibly for her patrons, although we know those recordings are going to make it out into the public. More worringly for St. Clair is that Florence, of her own accord, decides to rent out Carnegie Hall for a public concert! There's no possible way St. Clair can keep Florence from learning the truth about what everybody thinks of her singing now, and Cosme is worried that this will ruin his career.

Florence Foster Jenkins is ultimately at its heart not a biopic; it only covers two or three years of Jenkins' life and compresses them into a few months. It's more of a love story, with St. Clair having to face the question of how far he's going to go to make his wife happy. He doesn't ever want to hurt her with knowledge of his mistress Kathleen, and he doesn't want her to have to deal with the withering criticism of her singing that's sure to come. But at the same time, he doesn't want to steal her life's ambition, and it makes for an interesting conflict, open to both humor and drama. Having a story set in the 1940s also affords the opportunity for some nice set and costume design; the costumes received an Oscar nomination.

The movie's other nomination went to Meryl Streep (yet again) for Best Actress. Not a surprise, I suppose. But to be honest I found Hugh Grant to be the real revelation here. His St. Clair is no lightweight, but a fully-realized character full of the natural emotional conflicts that somebody would have in his situation. Grant effectively lets us see all of this. Simon Helberg also does surprisingly well as the pianist who is kind of confused by everything, but who ultimately doesn't want to hurt a kindly old lady like Florence either.

I can highly recommend Florence Foster Jenkins.