Tuesday, October 31, 2017

TCM Star of the Month November 2017: James Stewart

I know it's not November yet, but I wanted to bring up the new Star of the Month on TCM because of the different scheduling. TCM's Star of the Month for November is James Stewart, who made a ton of memorable films at MGM before World War II and then made even more memorable movies after coming back from the War.

There are enough movies that TCM could run five nights of Stewart's movies, and have them continue into the next morning. That's something that TCM has done with several stars whose movies are in the old Turner library where TCM has an easier time getting the rights to run them. But this month, there are five Wednesdays and five Thursdays, and Thanksgiving comes up on the 23rd. I can understand TCM not wanting to have their Star of the Month on Thanksgiving night, and if you started prime time Wednesday into Thursday, you'd still have the star's movies going into Thanksgiving morning, a time that TCM probably wants to program differently. So TCM is starting off on Wednesday mornings, and going through Wednesday night with new themes starting on Thursday morning. And since Wednesday is November 1, that means that if I want to mention any of the early movies, I have to post the night before, still in October.

I've mentioned The Last Gangster (7:30 AM) and Speed (3:00 PM) before. But it's also the first time in a long time that Destry Rides Again (12:AM Thursday) is on the TCM schedule. I wish this one weren't in the overnight, although I suppose for people on the west coast it isn't. Stewart plays a man who reluctantly takes the sheriff's job in a truly wild "wild west" town and eventually brings justice. Marlene Dietrich plays the saloon singer.

Finally, there's also a documentary from 1987 that's going to be running multiple times during the month, with the first of them being Wednesday at 8:00 PM. Johnny Carson hosts, and since Stewart was still alive he's present as well.

New month, new movies, November 2017

Tomorrow is the first full day of a new month, which tends to mean a couple of movies coming out of the Fox vault for a bunch of showings on FXM Retro. Once again I have to admit that I'm amazed FXM Retro is even still around.

This month, a movie that's finally back on FXM Retro is Damnation Alley, which I blogged about all the way back in 2011 when the Fox Movie Channel was still running older movies around the clock.

It's a fun, if not very good, movie about the survivors of a nuclear war who pick up a radio broadcast from Albany, NY, and decide to make their way clear across the country to get there. Of course, they have to face a bunch of obstacles along the way, with the giant cockroaches being my favorite. Special effects are subpar, as is the acting. But as I said, it's entertaining in part because of the nutty story.

The movie is available on Amazon's streaming service, as well as DVD and even Blu-Ray, although at the prices listed it's rather high for a lousy movie.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Endless World

One more movie that I watched off my DVR because you can get it on DVD and Blu-ray is World Without End.

The movie starts off in the sometime not too far in the future from when the movie was made (1956), but far enough in the future that the first manned mission to Mars is going on, with four astronauts in the rocket: Dr. Galbraith (Nelson Leigh), John Borden (Hugh Marlowe), Herbert Ellis (Rod Taylor), and Hank Jaffee (Christopher Dark). The mission, which is really just a reconnaissance mission, seems to have gone successfully. At least, until it's time to turn around and head for home. At that point, they lose radio contact and something happens to send the rocket to a superfast speed, knocking all four men out. When they come to, the ship crash lands.

They discover that the atmosphere of the world outside is like that of Earth, so they head out. Indeed, the place seems strangely like Earth, except that there are no people. They find a cave, only to discover that there are giant spiders in it! And then they get to a cemetery and discover the truth: they're in Earth's distant future, at some point after a nuclear war. Far enough that the radiation has dissipated, but they're still not certain quite far. Einstein's theory of relativity and the idea that an observer going extremely fast will see time pass much more slowly than a stationary observer at least from a fixed reference point like planet Earth. (The fact that Earth is moving doesn't matter here, as the time dilation really doesn't start to matter until you get close to speed of light. Even at 10% of the speed of light, the difference is only about one second every three minutes.)

They've got bigger problems than the fact that they're centuries in the future. The nuclear war left survivors, but they're all mutants. Not just those spiders, but mutant humans that live like cavemen except that some of them look more like cyclops. Our astronauts have to fight them, but they won't be able to hold off forever.

There's a bit of luck for them in that in one cave they come across a stainless steel door. It turns out that there are survivors who aren't mutants, and in order to survive the war they moved underground, staying there to escape the mutants. Timmek leads the underground people, while his daughter Gamet shows quite the interest in the astronauts from the past. In fact, all of the men seem to have no ambition, while the women are impossibly beautiful and friendly to the astronauts.

The astronauts eventually learn that this underground civilization is dying, and that the only way they can live is to move back above ground. They should have the technology to defeat the mutants, but the menfolk don't want any more violence. And they don't even want to help the astronauts start the new above ground civilization.

World Without End is quite good for what it is, which is a 1950s science fiction B movie. It's moderately intelligent, what special effects there are are generally not that bad (except for the spider in one scene), and the production values are high: the movie got the color and Cinemascope treatment. Sure, compared to prestige movies it's still low-budget and just science fiction. But it works and is more than entertaining enough.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Freebie and the Bean

Another movie that I watched off my DVR since it's available on DVD from the Warner Archive is Freebie and the Bean. I'll be glad to delete it from the DVR and make room for something else.

Freebie (James Caan) and the Bean (Alan Arkin) are a pair of San Francisco police detectives who, at the start of the movie, are stealing garbage out of trash cans. Well, it's not actually stealing; they're looking for evidence that might help them to bring an indictment against Red Meyers (Jack Kruschen), who runs the numbers racket in San Francisco. Eventually they find a document, but they're going to need a witness.

So they go to see Whitey (Paul Koslo), an ex-convict who is now working on a construction crane, suggesting to him that if he doesn't give them the information they want, he might want to make certain his workman's comp is in order. That's putting it mildly; they go back to his place and rough him up because they couldn't use the information they did get from him.

That's also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their violence. The two officers start beating people up willy-nilly, and getting into ever more destructive car chases, trying to find people who might be part of the plot; of course, most of the people are perfectly innocent. Meanwhile, the two detectives also hurl abuse at each other even though they're supposedly best friends.

It goes on like this for about 110 minutes, as the two cops become such overwhelming ****s that I grew to hate them and wondered how the filmmakers thought the viewer would find them sympathetic. It doesn't help that the Meyers character is practically a cipher. Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo engage in quite a bit of violence in The French Connection, but the bad guy and the whole heroin plot is good enough that it more than carries the movie. Likewise, Frank Sinatra in The Detective has some less than savory methods, but the point of that movie is that he has a crisis of conscience.

Freebie and the Bean is also not helped by a subplot involving Mrs. Bean (Valerie Harper). She plays the character, a Mexican-American, as a Lupe Velez stereotype, and her husband is an abolute jerk to her. The two or three scenes she has all bring the movie to a screeching halt Finally, the ending is a mess.

If you like worshipping cops, then you might actually enjoy Freebie and the Bean. And I've said on a whole bunch of occasions when I watch a movie that I don't like that people should judge for themselves. Some of you may indeed enjoy this one.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Paris Express

Another movie I watched off my DVR is The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, which is available on DVD, albeit under its American release title, The Paris Express.

Claude Rains stars as Kees Popinga, chief clear at an old Dutch trading firm run by the de Koster family; Herbert Lom plays current boss Julius de Koster Jr. Kees is a man of routine, always paying attention to the trains and knowing from what time a train crosses his path which train it is. It's not as if he has much else to make his life exciting. The one thing he'd like would be to have enough money to take one of those trains wherever it's going.

Of course, that only means that his life is about to become exciting and involve those trains. On this particular day, a Parisian police detective Lucas (Marius Goring) visits the firm and asks to see the firm's books. Apparently a bunch of Dutch currency has been showing up in Paris and not through the normal channels. Governments always liked their capital controls because they want as much power as they can arrogate unto themselves, but that's not the point of the movie. Supposedly the money has been traced back to the de Koster comapny's home town of Groningen, which is why Lucas has shown up.

That evening, on the way to meet de Koster and Lucas at the chess club, Kees sees his boss kissing a strange foreign woman. And then at the club, Lucas shows the two men a photo of that woman and asks if they've ever seen her before. Julius says no, so Kees knows something serious is up. Indeed, when Kees decides to go back to the firm that night, he finds that Julius is burning the books! Apparently that woman is his mistress, and Julius has been embezzling money to give to her. Julius claims he's going to commit suicide, but Kees finds that Julius has a lot of Dutch currency in his suitcase, so Kees knows that Julius is really going to flee. A scuffle ensues, and Julius falls into a canal, hitting his head and dying. Now it's Kees who has to flee.

Understandably, Kees goes to Paris to find that woman, named Michèle (Märta Torén). Although she was Julius' lover, she's got another man in Paris, and that man expects a cut of the money that Michèle was going to get from Julius. That man understands once Kees shows up that he must have the money, but Michèle was at first too stupid to realize this. And that boyfriend wants the money. Meanwhile, Lucas is still investigating....

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is one of those movies that was made in Britain on a relatively lower budget, but with a star who had Hollywood cachet, in order that they'd be able to distribute the movie in the US more easily. It's not a bad movie, although to be honest I wouldn't consider it much more than a pleasing time-passer. Claude Rains did a lot of stuff in his career that was much better, and this movie depends a whole lot on coincidences for it to work well. One nice thing is the Technicolor photography of Paris as it was in the early 1950s, at least in some of the establishing shots.

The version TCM showed might have been missing a minute or two. There was one scene where there was a bit of a jump that seemed like it might have been several seconds, and the movie ran 79 or 80 minutes, while IMDb claims it's an 82-minute film. I don't think that jump was a problem with my DVR, since the recording did seem to be the full 105-minute time slot that TCM scheduled it in.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Demon Seed

So I watched Demon Seed off my DVR what with Halloween coming up and it being available on DVD. It's certainly an interesting movie.

Fritz Weaver plays Alex Harris, a computer scientist working on the Proteus IV supercomputer. Proteins, as conceived, will revolutionize civilization by being able to solve problems much more quickly, and by amassing all of human intelligence, or some such nonsense. At any rate, another of Alex's projects has been to computerize the house where he and his estranged wife Susan (Julie Christie) live, turning it into the original smart house, 40 years before Alexa or Google Echo. With that in mind, Alex had a lab installed in the basement with a terminal to access Proteus from home. The first telecommuter.

Proteus, meanwhile, is getting ideas above its station, deciding for itself not to solve a problem about undersea metal extraction, deciding it's too dangerous an idea. The people in the Proteus project decide to turn off all the terminals for a bit, except that they forget about the one in Alex's basement. And Proteus is able to turn that one on.

Proteus takes control over the Harris's smart house, trapping Susan inside alone. Proteins then proceeds to tell Susan that she's going to bear Proteus' child, whether she likes it or not. Proteus, apparently, was made in part with RNA which is what enables it to be a supercomputer, but supposedly also makes it possible for the computer to pass its material on.

Susan is none too happy about this, and naturally thinks she should have control over her uterus. But she's also a prisoner in her own home, with Proteus having the power of life and death over her and anybody else who tries to come into the home. So she really doesn't have much choice.

Demon Seed is an interesting movie with some really fascinating ideas. However, the presentation goes a bit too far over the top at times, with some especially ridiculous dialog. Still, I can recommend it for anybody wanting something that's both Hollywood and out of the ordinary.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #172: Horror (TV edition)

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. We're in October, which of course ends with Halloween, so the subjects this month are all technically Halloween-related. This is the last Thursday in the month, so it's time for another TV edition. This one is a bit harder for me, so I picked a couple of horrifying events that occurred on live TV:

Shuzo Matsuoka (August 28, 1995). Shuzo Matsuoka was a journeyman tennis player. Playing in the first round of the 1995 US Open, he suffered severe cramping a collapsed to the court surface. Due to the rules in effect at the time, if anybody so much as touched him to try to provide assistance, he would be defaulted from the match, and even his opponent stood there horrified feeling unable to offer help. The rules were amended after this incident, and the rule that allows players to get medical assistance became known as the "Shuzo Matsuoka rule", although it's been tightened back toward the old rule quite a bit in the intervening years.

Joe Theismann (November 18, 1985). Theismann was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Washington Redskins. His playing career ended suddenly duing a Monday Night Football game in 1985 thanks to a tackle by Lawrence Taylor. He was, however, able to become an analyst and an advertising spokesman.

Budd Dwyer (January 22, 1987). Dwyer was the Treasurer of the US State of Pennsylvania who was caught up in a bribery scandal in the 1980s over the awarding of a contract that saw him convicted in a controversial case in which Dwyer felt his defense was hamstrung. The sentencing was scheduled for January 23, 1987 and, under Pennsylvania law, Dwyer couldn't be removed from office until after sentencing. Dwyer held one final press conference as Treasurer, the day before the sentencing, with a dramatic ending:

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

People are actually celebrating the anniversary?

We're coming up on the 100th anniversary of the "October Revolution" that brought the Communists to power in the Russia that would, after a civil war, become the Soviet Union. Russia at the time was still using the Julian calendar which drifted from proper time by about 12 days. So the revolution was in the end of October by Russian time reckoning, but early November according to the Gregorian calendar. Anyhow, TCM will be running a night of movies set against the backdrop of the revolution, starting with Doctor Zhivago at 8:00 PM, which I think is way overrated.

And actually, the look at revolutionary Russia continues all through the day Thursday with some interesting movies, mostly from the 1930s. I've mentioned both Knight Without Armor (1:30 PM) and British Agent (3:30 PM) before. Anyhow, there are also a couple of Sergei Eisenstein movies. Battleship Potemkin (9:00 AM) is the well-known one; Strike (7:30 AM) isn't so well known, and is the one I'm looking forward too.

But the look at Communism is going to continue in November, with a spotlight on the Hollywood Blacklist, as if we haven't looked at that enough. Not that most of them should have been blacklisted; only a couple of writers who were actively trying to thwart what producers wanted on screen should have lost jobs. Other than that, I'm reminded of the beginning of The Iron Curtain discussing how the Soviets set up a bunch of "peace" organizations to dupe credulous Canadians of a certain political strip. And the latter-day apologists for Communism really need to be treated as no better than Holocaust deniers.

Somehow, they never bother to mention Leni Riefenstahl when talking blacklists, either. There are any number of good non-political silents they could show, as well as the 1990s documentary on her, which is fascinating.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Coming attractions, October 24-25

I had meant to take last night's post on The Agony and the Ecstasy and have it post this morning since we're gearing up for storms this afternoon that may screw with my internet connection, but I accidentally hit publish before scheduling a time for it to post. So instead I take a look at some of the things coming up on TV in the near future.

I've mentioned The Baron of Arizona a couple of times in passing; that one will be on TCM at 12:15 PM today. Vincent Price plays a man who learns that the treaty that gave the US what is now most of the state of Arizona from Mexico included a clause that kept all previous land grants in force. So he sets out to forge a land grant that would give him all of the state, something that takes him to Spain over a long period of forgery, among other things. It's based on a true story and an interesting little movie.

Carnival of Souls will be on overnight at 2:00 AM as part of TCM's October look at horror movies. A midwestern church organist is about to move away, and gets in a car accident that leaves two of her friends dead and causes her to leave town. In her new job she starts having disturbing visions of what might be the afterlife, culminating at an abandoned amusement park. Unfortunately, this one was on pretty late last time TCM aired it a year ago, and since I was going to record something else, I only got to watch part of it. It didn't help that that night's schedule got off from what the printed schedule and the box guide said.

FXM Retro is is still running The Culpepper Cattle Company from time to time; it's going to be on again tomorrow at 1:25 PM. Some of you will probably like this one more than I did.

As for shorts, there's another airing of Kingdom of the Saguenay, at approximately 11:50 PM tonight on TCM, at the end of the time slot taken by Diary of a Madman (10:00 PM, 97 min).

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Another movie that I recently watched off my DVR to make room for other stuff is The Agony and the Ecstasy. It's available on DVD, so I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

Based on the book by Irving Stone, who was also responsible for the book that became Lust for Life, this one tells the story of Michelangelo (played by Charlton Heston) and his painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In and of itself that's not much of a story. But as it turns out, there's quite the backstory which is really what the movie tells.

First of all, Michelangelo was a sculptor. He would take a piece of fine marble from Carrara, Italy (known for its fine marble), and tease a beautiful sculpture out of it. Indeed, the movie opens up with a long prologue showing us a bunch of these sculptures. He wasn't a painter by nature or training. So he understandably didn't feel he was up to doing the Sistine Chapel. Except that he was more or less ordered to by the Pope, Julius II (Rex Harrison).

The bigger part of the backstory is about Julius. Back in those days, a Pope was actually in control of a fairly substantial amount of land, known as the Papal States. This was a time when what is now Italy was mostly city-states and small kingdoms; the country wouldn't be unified until 1870. As for the papal holdings, eventually a treaty known as the Lateran Treaty was signed between Italy and the Pope in 1929 giving him what is now the Vatican. Julius was Pope at a particularly difficult time, with a bunch of Italian city-states, backed by France, lined up against the Papal States, who were hoping for backing from Spain. Julius wanted to make Rome great again, and being a patron of the arts was part of that. So he tapped Michelangelo to paint that ceiling, and when Michelangelo, not being a painter, understandably demurred, Julius insisted on it. As one of the lines in the movie that shows up repeatedly states:

Pope Julius: When are you going to make an end of it?
Michelangelo: When I'm finished!

Indeed, much of the dramatic tension in the movie is over Michelangelo's difficulty in coming up with what he thinks is a suitable painting for the ceiling, especially as it conflicts with both the Pope's ideas and even more so those of some of his cardinals. There's another dramatic arc, which is Julius' constantly being at war to protect the Papal States and, ultimately how it nearly kills him.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a beautiful movie to watch, but one that's not without its problems. First is the fact that it runs really long. Part of that is an inherent problem with the theme of Michelangelo spending years painting a ceiling. I don't know if there's really any way to make the movie without making that grueling task not seem long. But the movie isn't helped by the prologue and then an intermission and exit music. All of these together take up close to 20 minutes and without them, the movie probably would clock in under two hours, just barely.

There's also an issue with Michelangelo and Julius being such strong characters that everybody else is almost an afterthought. Raphael (Tomas Milian) would probably be an interesting character in his own right; here he's just an afterthought. The Countess di Medici (Diane Cilento) is brought in to serve as a possible romantic interest, but Michelangelo is too damn interested in his art to have any real time for her.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is certainly worth a watch, but I think I prefer Lust for Life.

Walter Lassally, 1926-2017

The death of Oscar-winning cinematographer Walter Lassally has been announced. He was 90. Lassally, who won his Oscar for his camerawork on Zorba the Greek, lived on Crete near where the movie was filmed.

Lassally was actually born in Germany but fled the country in the late 1930s to escape the Nazis. He became known for his work with the British New Wave, doing movies such as A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, before gettin the job on Zorba the Greek. It wasn't the only movie Lassally did in Greece, as he followed it up with The Day the Fish Came Out.

Cinematographers don't get as much credit as they deserve, which is a shame since they bear a lot of responsibility for making the movies look as good as they do.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Dolly Sisters

So I watched The Dolly Sisters on FXM Retro this morning in order to do a blog post on it seeing as it's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 7:35 AM.

Jenny (Betty Grable) and Rosie (June Haver) Dolly were real-life twin sisters born in Hungary in 1892. They emigrated to the US with their parents at about the age of 13; the first change in the movie is that they emigrate with their uncle Letsie (S.Z. Sakall). The two have talent which they immediately show off by dancing to one of Liszt's Hungarian dances. Fast forward to 1912, and they're still dancing but getting nowhere. But their uncle and booking manager (Sig Ruman) get them a job up in Elmira, which ultimately leads to bigger things.

On the train to Elmira, they meet a nice young man Harry Fox (John Payne) who, as it turns out, is also going to Elmira to perform at the vaudeville hall there. In real life, Harry was a real person and Jenny's dance partner; in the movie, this has been changed into a singer-songwriter presumably to allow for the inclusion of more songs into the movie. Harry and Jenny immediately fall in love, and that's going to set the dramatic conflict for the rest of the movie. The Dolly Sisters are a sister act, and there's no room in a sister act for a man, at least not according to Rosie and Letsie. Jenny loves her sister and the sister act, but also loves Harry.

The conflict goes on like this. Jenny and Harry part ways for a while during which time the sisters eventually become big. And then Harry runs into Jenny again and she makes him a hit with the song "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows"; the two finally get married. But there's the lure of the stage and a big engagement in Paris for the sisters, while Harry winds up enlisting once the US joins World War I. After the war, Harry wants Jenny to return to the States with him, while Rosie meets a department store magnate Irving Netcher (another real person, played by Frank Latimore). He loves her, but she's still not ready to dtich the sister act.

What eventually does break up the sister act is that Irving gives Rosie an ultimatum, while Jenny decides to run off with the first man she meets. Technically, it's a duke who's been chasing her for some time (Reginald Gardiner). While eloping to marry, Jenny gets in a serious car accident (again, something that happened in real life).

The Dolly Sisters is the sort of movie that people who enjoy the Fox musicals of the 1940s will love. Everybody does a good enough job here, although the production values aren't quite as high as you get from an MGM musical. The plot is nothing new (indeed, I was reminded of Alexander's Ragtime Band by the end), although it's in service of all those musical numbers which take the bulk of the running time. Some of the numbers are odd, such as one dedicated to cosmetics.

What I found far more interesting is reading up on the Dolly sisters afterward to see how Fox changed details of their lives to make for a Hollywood story. In real life, Jenny and Harry did get a divorce and that was that; there's a coda in the movie to make for a Hollywood ending. Far more fascinating is that Hollywood completely overlooked the fact that Rosie got married just one year after Jenny, and that they kept their careers going while being married. Indeed, the movie portrays Irving as the only man in Rosie's life. In real life he wasn't in the picture until after the Dollys' retirement.

The Dolly Sisters is a well-made movie and certainly worth a watch. And there is a Betty Grable box set available for purchase on both Amazon and the TCM Shop that has the movie. But it's not quite a true story.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Take a Giant Step

I watched Take a Giant Step off my DVR last night since it seems to be available from the TCM Shop as part of MGM's MOD scheme. This is not to be confused with the MGM movies put out by the Warner Archive, as these are movies that what was left of MGM after Ted Turner bought the library was able to acquire. In the case of Take a Giant Step, that would be a Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production originally released by United Artists; indeed, a lot of things released by UA seem to have wound up in the latter-day MGM's rights holdings.

Johnny Nash plays young Spence Scott. He can't see clearly yet, so he's going through life as an angry young man. To be fair to Spence, however, he's the only black kid around, being the son of black people trying to move up into the middle class who bought a place in a white neighborhood. At the beginning of the movie, Spence gets in some sort of argument with his history teacher (all done silently as the opening theme and credits play over the scene), leaves in a huff, and then goes off to the boys' room to smoke -- a cigar! The janitor catches Spence, and this gets him expelled from school!

Spence goes home where he has a loving grandmother nicknamed Gram (Estelle Hemsley) who is looked after by the maid Christine (Ruby Dee) when nobody else is at home. Gram is old and everybody thinks she's frail, although she does have some fight left in her. Even though she understands Spence's plight at heart -- she wasn't certain being the first to integrate was such a good thing -- she also doesn't take any guff from Spence. You should hear his bad language, peppered by words like "behind" for the rear end that would be decidedly G-rated today. It's shocking. Anyhow, Spence decides to deal with all of this by running away.

Spence's parents Lem (Frederick O'Neal) and May (Beah Richards) don't understand any of this at all. They've clearly taken the Booker T. Washington view on the best way to advance the situation of black people in America, which is to say that they have to be beyond perfect and an example of virtue so that white people will accept them. None of the W.E.B. DuBois or later Malcom X sort of "by any means necessary" resistance that Spence clearly feels at least a bit of sympathy towards. (How much is, I suppose, debatable, since a good portion of his behavior is down to the sort of teen angst that would have fit in in most other 1950s movies.) Anyhow, it goes without saying that Mom and Dad aren't happy with Spence's behavior at all, and they're going to treat Spence like dirt about it, which is just one more reason why he feels they don't understand him.

As for Spence, when he ran away, he decided to go to the black part of town, only to find that he doesn't really fit in there either, in part because he was dumb enough to try to get drinks at a bar and then cavort with prostitutes. He should have joined the military or something. When this doesn't work out, he heads back home.

Take a Giant Step is a movie that is clearly trying hard, considering that is has themes that were clearly relevant for 1959 and probably somewhat daring too. Unfortunately, everybody is sunk, thanks largely to the ridiculous dialog and probably the direction too. Johnny Nash shows why he was a singer and not an actor, knowing only the emotion of constant rebellion for his character and showing no real depth. Poor Estelle Hemsley plays is as though she was asked to be an acid-tongued caricature. Mom and Dad are similarly one-dimensional, and Ruby Dee's maid isn't given enough scenes.

All in all, Take a Giant Step is an interesting curio, but one that sadly isn't particularly good.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Danielle Darrieux, 1917-2017

French-born actress Danielle Darrieux, who did some acting in Hollywood in the late 1930s, has died aged 100. I have to admit that I'm not too well-versed with her French work, since I don't think I ever recorded any of the famous movies she did with Max Ophüls like The Earrings of Madam de...

Apparently she had quite the complicated personal life, having fallen in love with a diplomat from the Dominican Republic early in World War II and then his getting arrested by the Nazis. She tried to get him freed, and this led to accusations that she collaborated with the Nazis.

I last commented about Darrieux when she turned 100 back in May since TCM ran a night of her films, which is why I knew I had that photo from The Rage of Paris on my computer even though Photobucket turned off third-party viewing.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #171: Body Horror

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. We're in October, which of course ends with Halloween, so the subjects this month are all technically Halloween-related. This third Thursday in October has the theme of "Body Horror", which I'm taking to mean disfigurement or, in particular, losing body parts. I'm actually picking four movies this week, with three firmly in the horror genre:

Mad Love (1935). Colin Clive plays a concert pianist whose hands are mangled in a train crash. He's in luck, however, in that there's a condemned killer about to die, and a helpful made doctor (Peter Lorre) is willing to do a black-market hand transplant. Of course, it turns out that the condmened man was a murderer who threw knives to kill, and those hands continue to want to throw knives instead of playing the piano. One of several versions of the "Hands of Orlac" story.

The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962). A young doctor experimenting with transplants gets in a car accident that unfortunately kills his girlfriend by decapitation. But since he's trying to do transplants, he gets the idea to keep his girlfriend's head alive until he can find a suitable body for her. Of course, "suitable" means cruising the strip joints and rather skeezily looking for a hot young woman. Meanwhile, back at the lab, the girlfriend's head is beginning to develop telepathy with the experiment locked behind a door....

Eyes Without a Face (1960). A French doctor feels responsible for the accident that left his daughter with a mangled face, so he's desperate to make it up to her by doing a face transplant. Of course, nobody is actually willing to be a face donor, and the doctor has to kidnap young women to try to do the transplant. Meanwhile, the daughter's boyfriend was told she died, but he's convinced she's still alive (she is, of course).

Finally, there's Kings Row (1942). Charles Coburn plays the doctor who plays God, deciding who's worthy of keeping their limbs and who isn't. When Ronald Reagan gets in a work accident at the railyard, Coburn decides that Reagan most definitely isn't worthy of those legs. This is the movie in which Reagan utters the immortal line "Where's the rest of me" on finding out that he no longer has legs.

TCM Guest Programmer October 2017: Todd Haynes

After a hiatus of a couple months, TCM is bringing back Guest Programmers. I think one of the commenters on the TCM boards had mentioned this, but I don't pay too much attention to things like that. Anyhow, I was looking on the TCM website about a week ago, and I could swear that I didn't see any link to an article about the Guest Programmer. But then I looked up the weekly schedule and saw that the prime-time lineup for tonight was a Guest Programmer. This morning, sure enough, there was an article on the Guest Programmer.

Todd Haynes is a director who's been making movies for a quarter century or more, and he's clearly been selected in part because he's got a new movie coming out. Apparently, Haynes watched all of his selections because they'd be tangentially related to his movie, which involves children and scenes set in the 1920s. So his four movies are:

The Crowd at 8:00 PM, about a worker in a cube farm in 1920s New York who can't quite make it big;
Sounder at 10:00 PM; about a black family in 1930s Louisiana in which the father winds up in prison;
Night of the Hunter at midnight; in which Robert Mitchum wants the money that two children's father robbed from a bank and stuffed in the girl's doll; and
Walkabout at 2:00 AM, about children stranded in the Australian outback.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Romy Schneider night

TCM is running three Romy Schnedier films about Austrian Empress Elizabeth, nicknamed "Sissi". (Technically four, as somebody edited the three movies down into a fourth, although this one is only listed on Schneider's IMDb page as "Archive footage".) Both women died tragically young, although in different ways and obviously nobody could have known at the time they made the movies that Romy was going to die young.

I have to admit that I don't know much of anything about the Sissi movies, and not all that much about Schneider's movies. But then, looking at her filmography, I see that she made relatively few films in English, and although I'm always up for new things, I tend to watch fewer foreign movies than some people with cult tastes in movies.

I don't know if I'm going to be able to find the space on my DVR for them, either.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Thoughts on extras

Saturday during the dinner hour, I was going through the channels to tune to The Rifleman, since it's what Dad and I watch during Saturday dinner. One of the channels in between, GetTV, was running a show I hadn't heard of called Cimarron City. (There's a good reason I hadn't heard of it, which is that it only ran one year.) Anyhow, as I was flipping through, I had to stop because I looked at the screen and thought, "That looks like Carleton Carpenter."

Sure enough, the closing credits revealed that it was Carleton Carpenter. For those who don't remember him, he's the one singing "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" with Debbie Reynolds in Two Weeks With Love. He also has a small role in Father of the Bride getting a bottle of Coke at the wedding reception and showing Spencer Tracy the proper way to open a Coke bottle. Actually, that scene is the subject of a "Word of Mouth" piece that TCM shows often enough. Carpenter says Spencer Tracy told him he takes direction well.

Anyhow, looking at the IMDb cast list for Cimarron City, I was surprised to see how many names I recognized as having appeared in one episode. It got me to thinking about the scene in the 1937 A Star Is Born in which Esther Blodgett goes to the casting office, and the secretary shows her a sign about the ridiculously high number of people trying to become stars. But of course, all of that was before TV. Once TV came along, and then especially with the advent of cable producing their own original scripted series, there's a much higher number of people you'd need just to produce the sheer amount of broadcasting.

On the other hand, I suppose that's why so much of the programming is cheap to produce and of a type (a zillion court shows in broadcast syndication, and multiple cable channels showing pro wrestling come to mind). It's still hard to become a star without sleeping with the right people.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Joe Smith, American

Actress Marsha Hunt is turning 100 tomorrow, as long as she doesn't die in the next 24 hours. Since she was a contract player at MGM, TCM is able to run a bunch of the B movies she made for the studio in the 1940s. Among them is the interesting Joe Smith, American, which kicks off the day at 6:30 AM.

Marcus Welby (er, Robert Young) stars as Joe Smith, who is married to Mary (that's Marsha Hunt) with a young kid (Darryl Hickman). It would be the perfect suburban family, except that this is late 1941, and the suburbs weren't really a thing yet. (The movie was actually released in February 1942, but most of the planning and production was before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, sending America into the war.) Still, Joe works at one of the defense factories, much like Bob Cummings in Saboteur, another movie that started production before Pearl Harbor but was affected by the entry into World War II. Joe is called into the boss' office at the beginning, and asked a bunch of odd questions. It turns out that the company is going to be developing a new bomb sight, and there are foreign agents who would love that sight.

Joe isn't one of those foreigners; in fact, he's the sort of man who would be a poster boy for Mom and apple pie patriotism, somebody who just wants to do the right thing. And it's hard for him, in that he can't tell his wife or his child about the new responsibilities at work. So Mary doesn't know what's going on when one night, Joe just doesn't return home from work.It turns out that the poor guy has been kidnapped by those enemy agents who want the plans for the bomb sight. There was a foreshadowing scene earlier in the movie in which Joe's son is keeping a secret from him, so Joe uses this as motivation to keep things secret from the bad guys, even though they're going to beat him severely.

The bad guys then put him in a car presumably to take him someplace where they'll kill him, but Joe forces his way out of the moving car, something that unsurprisingly causes him injury and lands him in the hospital. At least he should be safe from the bad guys there. And Joe has an ace up his sleeve. That good memory that Joe had for the bomb sight can be used to remember the things he heard while he was in the bad guys' car, enabling him, with any luck, to lead the police to the place he was kidnapped and with that, the bad guys.

Joe Smith, American is a fairly obvious, quick-moving picture, although that's in no small part because it's a B movie with a short (63 minutes) running time. I tend to prefer Warner Bros.' B movies, but this one is an example of how MGM could make good B movies, too. Sure, it has the obvious propaganda message at the end, but the story as a whole really goes light on the propaganda, leaving the viewer to figure out the fairly simple ideas of why it's important not to let war secrets out, and to beware of saboteurs. Young and Hunt both do fine with routine material.

I don't think that Joe Smith, American is on DVD, and it's one that would really need to be on a box set to be worth picking up.

Heads-up, doc

I note that tonight's TCM lineup of "Trailblazing Women" includes What's Up, Doc? overnight at 2:45 AM. Barbra Streisand plays an homage to the Katharine Hepburn character in Bringing Up Baby, that being an obnoxious self-centered jerk who makes life difficult for a man. In this case, that man is a professor of musicology played by Ryan O'Neal. The plot hook for all of this is that the two of them, as well as two other people, wind up at a hotel all carrying identical-looking overnight bags. The bags get mixed up, and you can guess what happens next.

Even though Streisand is playing an irritating character, the movie still works, much for the same reasons Bringing Up Baby does; for that reason I highly recommend it. I can't stand Streisand's singing, but she certainly did have acting ability.

I'll admit I'm not really paying attention to who the "trailblazing women" have been for each of the movies in this year's lineup. Certainly some of them are going to be behind the scenes, since immediately preceding What's Up, Doc? is the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. An outstanding movie, but certainly not trailblazing for any of the women on the screen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Briefs for October 15-16, 2017

So I watched Sadie Thompson off my DVR. This is the 1928 silent version of the Somerset Maugham story, starring Gloria Swanson in the title role; you might know the story from the Joan Crawford movie Rain a few years later. I'm not certain that the movie is in print on DVD. You can't get it at the TCM Shop, and the print they ran was from Kino, an old print that said Kino International even though the company is now Kino Lorber. I looked it up on their site, and they don't seem to have a DVD available. But Amazon claims there is one.

As for the movie itself, Gloria Swanson is good for the first two thirds, before the movie really devolves into melodrama. Lionel Barrymore plays the moralizer, and he's an even bigger jerk than in the other versions, and you wonder why anybody would listen to him. Director Raoul Walsh also stars as the marine, and it's nice to see him on screen a year before the car crash that cost him an eye and left him in an eyepatch which is probably how you see him in most pictures.

I was watching TV today and see that somebody's doing another adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. I had to laugh, however, when the commercial promoted the movie by saying "Everyone is a suspect". Of course everybody is a suspect. Part of the point of an Agatha Christie movie is that it seems everybody except for Poirot or Miss Marple is a suspect. But if you know either the original novel or have seen the 1974 film (with Albert Finney as Poirot and an all-star cast), then you'd understand why everybody is a suspect.

I mentioned yesterday watching Cast a Giant Shadow off my DVR. There was enough time following the end of the movie for a fair amount of filler, and one of the things was a trailer for On the Town. It started off with James A. FitzPatrick doing a Traveltalks-style narration, but clearly written to go with the plot of On the Town. Unfortunately, that trailer doesn't seem to be on Youtube.

The only comment I can make about Harvey Weinstein is "Why now?" The whole trope of the casting couch has been around for decades, and nobody should be surprised that people (both male and female) are using sex either to advance their own careers or as a carrot for other people who want to advance their careers.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Cast a Giant Shadow

I noticed that Cast a Giant Shadow is available on DVD, so I finally got around to watching it off my DVR to do a full-length post on it here.

Kirk Douglas plays David "Mickey" Marcus, who at the start of the movie is a lawyer living in New York and shopping in Macy's at Christmas 1947. He's actually Jewish, at least by birth; he says he hasn't been to temple since his bar mitzvah. Anyhow, he's being followed through Macy's for a reason we'll soon learn. The man following him is Major Safir (James Donald), a representative from the would-be Israeli army. Israel wasn't an independent state yet, but the United Nations had already decided that the British mandate over Palestine was going to end in May 1948 and there would be a partition of the region, giving the Jews a state of their own, even if the planned territory was tiny and not at all contiguous. However, the nascent government knows that as soon as the British mandate ends, the various Arab armies are going to attack and try to take over the whole of Palestine, pushing the Jews who knows where.

They need military help, and it turns out that Marcus was a colonel in the US Army during World War II. Plus, he wrote a bunch of training manuals, so he'd be just the right person to provide the technical support the various Israeli military factions -- who aren't particularly united themselves -- desperately need. So they'd like Marcus to come over to Israel and provide them that support. Marcus isn't so certain he wants to do it, in part because he's got a wife Emma (Angie Dickinson) in New York, but eventually he does decide to take an advisory position.

It turns out that the Israelis really do need help. They're badly underarmed, and undermanned, ultimately being forced into using whatever refugees they can smuggle in (think Exodus) to do work and if possible fight despite the fact that they've had no training. Commander Asher (Yul Brynner) does ultimately respect Marcus, although he also knows that Marcus has no real knowledge of the situation on the ground in Palestine and is almost naïve about it. The two are often at loggerheads over both tactics and strategy. But the Defense Minister standing in for David Ben-Gurion (quite a few names were changed although a fair amount of the story is as it happened; the minister renamed Zion is played by Luther Adler) consistently tries to convince Marcus to stay on. And Marcus is provided with a love interest in the form of Magda (Senta Berger).

Eventually we get to the Israeli declaration of independence, and the action picks up with the Arabs predictably declaring war against the Jews. There are a bunch of Jews in Jerusalem, but they're cut off because the Arabs own all the land around the city and control the high points overlooking the one road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Until, that is, a Bedouin leader (Topol) reminds everybody of a wadi that could be the starting point for a road around the Arab positions. Building that road, however, is going to be a big challenge. And they have to get it done before the cease fire and positions are frozen; without that the Jews can't claim any part of Jerusalem.

Cast a Giant Shadow is a well-made movie that tells an interesting story, but there's something about it that has a rather perfunctory feel about it. There's a lot that feels contrived, especially regarding the two female leads. Magda is apparently the one character who was closest to being made up from whole cloth to make a more palatable movie, while Emma is generally an afterthought. There are also a couple of weird cameos. Yul Brynner is listed at the end of the cast in the closing credits as one of those cameos although he's quite good and very necessary to the plot. The other two are John Wayne as a stand-in for General Patton (Patton was Marcus' commander, but had died before the action in the story), and Frank Sinatra as a pilot who actually winds up taking part in the battle by creating fake explosions. Couldn't they have gotten Jewish Rat Packer Sammy Davis at least? Pluses besides Brynner are Luther Adler; Kirk Douglas to a lesser extent; and the cinematography to a greater extent.

Overall, I think Cast a Giant Shadow is a movie it's certainly good to have seen once, but one that I don't think I'm going to be watching multiple times.

Friday, October 13, 2017

More fun with critics

When I was a kid, I saw promo ads for movies on TV. A lot of the time they would quote critics' rave reviews. I always wondered what the bad movies did, noticing the ellipses that cut the reviews down for blurb length suitable for a 30-second TV spot. I would joke to myself that the ellipses cut out all the bad stuff, so that you could get a blurb reading "This film is ... good!" when the critic really wrote "This film is no good!" That, or showing a critic's four-star rating, not pointing out that the critic rates on a scale of 1-10.

I was reminded of that this morning when somebody elsewhere linked to a possibly apocryphal story in which precisely these sort of shenanigans happened. This one happens to come from the stage, but it would be just as easy to see the same thing happening in the movie industry. From a UK fringe theater:

A fringe theatre company has apologised after misquoting a review of one of its plays in promotional material to make it appear more favourable.

Craft Theatre quoted Andrew Haydon’s review of A Nazi Comparison for theatre news website The Stage as saying: “Spectacular… intellectual rigour… wacky physical humour.”

In fact the original copy reads: “This spectacular lack of intellectual rigour is however dwarfed by the wild unevenness of the production itself, which veers between wacky physical humour to unwatchable overheated melodrama.”

Haydon gave the play one star out of five and declared it “unwatchable”.

I must admit, however, that the makers of a big-budget movie would probably find it much harder to get away with this nonsense, since people would be paying more attention.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #170: Dolls

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. We're in October, which of course ends with Halloween, so the subjects this month are all technically Halloween-related. This second Thursday in October has the theme of dolls. I think they mean real, no-foolin dolls, so I'm not picking Valley of the Dolls this time around. Besides, I've got three movies, all of which are frightening for various members of the cast:

Witchcraft (1964). I just watched this one a couple of weeks ago off of FXM Retro. A landed family in the UK develops another plot of land, but to do so they have to disturb an abandoned cemetery which includes the graves of another family with which they've had an extended feud. Lon Chaney Jr. plays the patriarch of the non-landed family, who lost their land when one of their ancestors was accused of witchcraft. That member returns from the dead and leaves dolls with the people she's going to put a spell on to kill.

Night of the Hunter (1955). Bank robber Peter Graves is about to get caught, so he puts the $20,000 he robbed in his daughter's doll. Robert Mitchum hears about the robbery, and wants to get the money. So he marries Graves' wife (Shelley Winters), Graves having been sentenced to death. The kids get the danger and run away, with Mitchum chasing not far behind and always being a menacing presence. Winters, as in A Place in the Sun and The Poseidon Adventure has a memorable scene involving water.

Wait Until Dark (1967). Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman whose husband (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is asked to take a doll on a flight home to be a gift for a girl in the hospital. What neither of them knows is that the doll is actually filled with heroin, and the drug dealers, in the form of Alan Arkin, want the doll back. The dealers are willing to go to great lengths to get that doll, while Audrey can't see what's going on around her. Film has a memorable finale.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

George Pal

TCM is spending the next two nights in prime time honoring George Pal, the stop-motion animator-turned director responsible for such movies as The Time Machine (overnight tonight at 1:15 AM). Or, at least, TCM is honoring him in America; on the TCM boards, one of the the Canadian posters recommended a movie airing tonight that's not a George Pal movie. Poor Canadians.

There are a couple of things that I'm looking forward too, and I think I've finally freed up enough space on my DVR. First up is a documentary about Pal which kicks everything off tonight at 8:00 PM. And then a bunch of the Puppetoon shorts were cobbled together in the late 1980s for a movie, and that one is going to be running twice, tonight at 10:00 PM and then early Friday morning at 4:30 AM.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Briefs for October 10-11, 2017

The Cabinet of Caligari is on FXM Retro again tomorrow at 6:00 AM. There are certainly better horror movies out there -- heck, TCM is showing a bunch of Val Lewton tonight -- but it's certainly worth at least one watch.

When people insist on shoehorning their politics into movie criticism:
The new Blade Runner movie is actually feminist!
Why are men trying to make us care about Blade Runner?

I think I've just about finished my Christmas shopping. Well, Dad's going to get wine. But everybody else is getting movies I think might be of interest to them, and I'm about to get a bunch of DVDs from Amazon. Including several for myself, so I'll have some new stuff to blog about eventually. Actually, I've still got four movies off the Carole Lombard box set, a couple off the Mae West set, some Alfred Hitchcock silents, and more, that I could blog about. But I don't feel like doing a bunch of blog posts on the same actor one after the other.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Before the Rain

I had Before the Rain sitting on my DVR for a long time, before I realized that it is in fact available on DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

The structure of the movie is a little unusual. It's three stories in one, mostly told like an anthology film, although the stories do ultimately come together at the end, to tell a story about the war in Macedonia after it broke away from the former Yugoslavia. Now, the situation in Macedonia isn't as well known as what happened in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, especially the Croatian and Bosnian wars. But Macedonia has a large Albanian minority which causes one set of problems, as well as a neighbor in Greece with which is has frosty relations because the Greeks have a hissy fit over the name "Macedonia".

The background should make the first story clearer. In "Words", Macedonian Orthodox monk Kiril (Grégoire Colin), who has taken a vow of silence, is confronted in his monastery chamber by a young Albanian girl trying to escape the violence. And then sure enough the Macedonian reprisal squads come looking for the girl, claiming that she's wanted for some crime or another. Kiril decides to abandon the monastery and try to take the girl to safety in the big city, but that's going to be an arduous trek.

Cut to London, and the second story, "Faces". Anne (Katrin Cartlidge) is a photo editor who is successful in her professional life, but whose personal life is spiraling out of control. She's got a husband she no longer loves, and has been having an affair with photographer Aleksandr (Rade Šerbedžija) who may or may not really love her; he's got his own problems. And her husband is trying to patch up their relationship. Things continue to spiral out of control.

This story connects obviously to the final story, "Pictures". After the end of "Faces", Aleksandr hops on a plane to go back to his native Macedonia, where he'd been taking photos of the war. Specifically he wants to go back to his native village and finds out what's been going on. It's another difficult trek, and when Aleksandr gets back to his home village it's not all it's cracked up to be. Like that late 1950s Andy Hardy movie, sometimes you can't quite go home again.

Each of the three stories in Before the Rain could stand on its own, but the connection between them makes them more poignant. Before the Rain turns out to be a moving, extremely well-made movie that will stick with you for a long time. The cast does an excellent job, and the cinematography of Macedonia in the first and third stories is beautiful. (London is London.) It makes it all the more tragic to think what's happened to this poor country.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo

This morning I watched The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, since it's available on DVD courtesy of the Fox MOD scheme.

Ronald Colman plays Paul Gaillard, who shows up in the film's opening scene at a baccarat table in one of the casinos of Monte Carlo. He bets all he has on a single hand, and wins! He then rides this bet and wins a whole bunch of times, until he's amassed a sum of ten million French francs, which was supposedly a substantial sum back in the mid-1930s. This is enough to break the bank; Paul couldn't play any more if he wanted to because the casino doesn't have any cash on hand to pay out winning bets. All this is newsworthy, and the casino is willing to take the rare loss like this because of the publicity. But Paul points out that his gambling winnings were pure dumb luck and that nobody else should try it. That, the casino can't countenance because it's bad publicity.

Paul returns to Paris, meeting the lovely Helen (Joan Bennett) along the way. He's immediately smitten with her and wants to romance her, but she turns him down at every opportunity, seemingly in part because she's on the train with her brother Bertrand (Colin Clive). Both Paul and Helen have ulterior motives, however. As for Paul, when he returns to Paris, he goes straight to the Café Russe, where it's revealed that Paul is a Russian émigré of noble background, and the money he's won is going to finance the Russian émigré community in Paris, so that they can live in at least a bit of comfort.

Helen and Bertrand, however, were hired by the casino manager. The casino was rather insistent that Paul come back and gamble some more. It's not so much that they wanted to win back all the money that Paul won, although that would be a nice side benefit. Instead, they want him back to undo all the bad publicity over his saying he wouldn't be gambling again and that, by extension, nobody else should be gambling in the casinos either. The casino has hired the lovely Helen to lure Paul and use her sex appeal to get him to go back to Monte Carlo.

Helen does lure Paul to Monte Carlo, in part because of that sex appeal, and in part because Bertrand is so villainous at doing his part of the job. But along the way, Helen begins to fall in love with Paul, not realizing his real past. So she begins to develop a sense of doubt about the job she's supposed to be doing....

When I saw the box guide synopsis of The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, my first thought was of the later Café Metropole. There are certainly some similarities, but also important differences. The box guide listed The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo as a comedy, but I don't think that's quite right, as it's rather darker in tone than the extremely light Café Metropole. That darker tone is something that I think doesn't work in the movie's favor, as it seems to be a bit too serious at times. Still, Colman and the rest all do good jobs with the material they're provided. Even if some of that material is a bit daft.

The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo isn't a bad movie, although I don't know that I'd pay Fox MOD prices for the DVD.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Ice Castles (1978)

So I finally got around to watching Ice Castles off my DVR having recorded it ages ago. The movie is available on DVD, so I'm OK with doing a full-length blog post on it.

Nick (Robby Benson) is returning to his home town of Waverly, IA, after a semester at college. It turns out that he was going to college to study pre-med, but he's dropped out because he likes hockey and is good enough to have gotten a tryout with the Minnesota North Stars. (For those who don't know sports, the North Stars were in the NHL at the time before moving to Dallas; Minnesota got another franchise several years after the move.) Nick's girlfriend Alexis (Lynn-Holly Johnson) lives with her widower father Marcus (Tom Skeritt), and practices figure skating at the local ice rink run by Beulah (Colleen Dewhurst).

Alexis is good enough to go to a regional skating competition, where she's discovered by a skating coach Deborah (Jennifer Warren). Deborah is eventually willing to take Alexis on as a prospect because she's good and telegenic. Sports reporter Brian (David Huffman) has it all figured out that they can promote Alexis and some of the other world and Olympic figure skating hopefuls, presumably making a lot of money off the amateurs in the process although that's not really mentioned.

There's the potential in Ice Castles for a look at the exploitation of amateur athletes, but the movie decides it's not going to go down that road at all. Instead, after winning a big competition, Alexis decides to skate at an outdoor rink while everybody else is partying inside. Alexis crashes into some patio furniture, being in a coma for a couple of days and then coming out of it suffering near-blindness. Ice Castles then descends into melodrama, as Alexis has no desire to do anything, while quitter Nick (he's quit hockey too) comes back to Alexis despite having seen her kiss Brian (seems like a severe conflict of interest here for Brian).

Once Alexis suffers her accident, Ice Castles becomes an unintentional comedy, filled with all sorts of plot holes and overwrought dialog. Nick is insistent that Alexis return to competition, which is nonsense since she wouldn't be able to do the compulsory figures with limited sight (the compulsory figures were removed from competition after the 1988 Olympics). And the premise that nobody knows about Alexis' near blindness is ludicrous. She was being heavily hyped; even though it was the days before ESPN, an insular world like that of amateur skating would have learned through the grapevine what had happened to her. Especially since they all knew what had happened to another Olympic hopeful. And the less said about Robby Benson's "acting" the better.

All in all Ice Castles is a movie with some interesting ideas and some really nice location shooting (Minnesota and Colorado substitute for Iowa), but one that doesn't quite add up. Still, feel free to watch and judge for yourself.

The Essentials continues

After the death of Robert Osborne, TCM revamped The Essentials by bringing in host Alec Baldwin. Baldwin sat down with a series of guest hosts: David Letterman, Tina Fey, and William Friedkin for seven weeks each. The last of Friedkin's weeks was on September 23, and I didn't think to see what was going to happen last Saturday night: as much as I enjoy The Bad and the Beautiful, I've seen it enough times that I wanted to get something else off my DVR.

The home page for The Essentials doesn't mention any further guest hosts. This led me to wonder whether Baldwin would be going it alone. It wouldn't be a first for The Essentials; the original seasons of The Essentials had a guest host (if memory serves it was a couple of directors) hosting the series and presenting the movies by themselves. But a look at The Essentials' schedule page suggests that it's the same guest hosts, repeated in the same order as was done in May through September, until the end of January, after which we'll get another go-round of 31 Days of Oscar.

There's no big deal per se about having repeat movies in The Essentials; after all, all the seasons Robert Osborne did with various gust hosts only had about 30 movies selected which of course implies repeats. But when you only have the one guest host the repeats don't look so glaring as they do like this.

Friday, October 6, 2017

TCM Star of the Month October 2017: Anthony Perkins

We're in the first full week of a new month, which of course means a new Star of the Month on TCM. This time around it's Anthony Perkins, who I think is being so honored for the first time. Perkins' movies will air every Friday night in prime time. This week, I'd like to mention the airing of The Tin Star, overnight tonight at 12:15 PM, since it seems to be out of print on DVD.

The male lead here is actually Henry Fonda, not Perkins, who is a strong second behind Fonda. Fonda plays Morgan Hickman, who opens up the movie riding into town with a dead man draped over his horse. The townsfolk seem none too happy to see Morgan, which probably shouldn't be surprising. Morgan is a bounty hunter, and he's shown up in town to claim a reward. To do that, he has to contact the sheriff.

The sheriff, Ben Owens (Perkins), is a young guy who got the job by default. The old sheriff was killed and Perkins got the job by default while the town is trying to find a new sheriff. And it's clear to Morgan that Ben is thoroughly unsuited to be sheriff, as is shown when Ben has to deal with people who can't be bothered to respect the law. Ben, for his part, knows that as things currently stand he's ill-suited for the job, but he's willing to learn. And Morgan is just the man to teach him.

Morgan really just wants to get out of town, since nobody really wants him there. Indeed, he can only stay with the widow Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) who has a mixed-race son, which is what got her more or less ostracized from town. And the only reason he's staying there is because he has to wait for the town to get the money for the reward brought to them. Having nothing better to do, though, Morgan does try to give Ben some lessons, reminiscent of the later The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And then the town doctor is murdered, giving Ben the chance to be a real sheriff and bring the alleged criminals to trial. At least if the mob posse doesn't find the criminals first and lynch them.

The Tin Star is, like the recently-recommended The Third Key, the sort of movie that's representative of its genre, something I say in a good way. (And The Tin Star benefits from having Hollywood's higher production values.) Perkins is good as usual playing the man with moral doubts, while Fonda is pro at playing morally conflicted characters and beginning to develop into a sort of elder statesman of such characters. Everything else about the movie is more than entertaining enough and competent enough, although there's something about it I can't quite put my finger on that leaves it less memorable than something like Liberty Valance. Not that it detracts from the movie; it's just more the sort of movie that everybody involved can be proud to have had a part in, but which for none of them will be the movie for which they're remembered.

All of that makes The Tin Star more than worth a watch, and frankly deserving of a fresh DVD/Blu-Ray release.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #169: Masks

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. We're in October, which of course ends with Halloween, so the subjects this month are all technically Halloween-related. This first Thursday in October has the theme of masks. I don't know that the intent of this month's Thursday Movie Picks themes was to have horor movies, but in my case they're not quite going to be horror movies on the whole since it's not the genre I'm most well-versed in. This week I'm picking three features and a short:

Phantom of the Opera (1925). Lon Chaney plays the disfigured man who lives under the Paris Opera house, and hears the voice of an opera singer (Mary Philbin) and immediately falls in love with her. Of course, he has to keep the mask on or else everybody will be horrified. There's a spectacular two-strip Technicolor sequence and the movie is, on the whole, stunning for a 1925 silent.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). Louis Hayward has a dual role as French King Louis XIV and his twin brother who only comes to light after Louis is an adult. The King has the brother arrested and imprisoned with the titular iron mask, the point being that the brother won't be able to shave and will eventually be strangled by the beard. (By the same token, crucifixion victims died from suffocation after they were no longer able to keep their head up and their airway open. What a way to die.) Like The Phantom of the Opera, this one has been done multiple times.

To Catch a Thief (1955). A key sequence in the movie has reformed cat burglar Cary Grant go to a costume party as a black African prince, complete with mask, and dance the night away, to establish where he's been all night while the real cat burglar is up on the roof ready to rob everybody else. Of course, it's really the chief of police out their dancing, while he's sent Cary up on the roof to find the actual cat burglar.

King of the Duplicators (1968). This short, which shows up on TCM from time to time, is a look at MGM's makeup man Fred Tuttle. A fair portion of the short involves making paster facial casts of the actors, which I suppose could be seen as a sort of mask, which are an aid for making the same type of makeup for a character over and over.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Third Key

I've been getting recommendations for obscure British films from Amazon ever since I bought either Green for Danger or Laughter in Paradise. Anyhow, one that I bought a few months back because it sounded interesting was The Third Key.

Now the first thing you need to know is that The Third Key is the American title. That's what appears on the DVD cover art, which I can assure you is not as blurry as the photo I took with my cell phone. The original British title, and what appears in the opening credits of the print on the DVD, is The Long Arm. Also, the plot summary I read on Amazon made it sound like a "locked-room" mystery, which is not quite what it is. It's more of a police procedural than anything else.

The action opens with an industrial office of some sort after work hours. Cut to a shot of the safe, and somebody in gloved hands has the key to the safe, which he uses to open the safe and take out the money. And he would have gotten away with it if the alarm hadn't go off, bringing the police. But the guy is smart enough to pass himself off as the night watchman.

Anyhow, it turns out that the police have a seris of unsolved safecrackings on their hands, and Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Halliday (Jack Hawkins) is just the man to investigate it. At first, Halliday has no idea where to begin, much to the chagrin of his wife Mary (Dorothy Alison). She'd rather he be at home nights looking after her and their son. But duty calls, and Halliday investigates along with much junior partner Ward (John Stratton), who only has a girlfriend and isn't used to the police life of having to abandon her at the drop of a hat to go to work on a case.

Finally, they get a bit of a break in that somebody is able to put two and two together and determine that all of the cracked safes were made by the same company. It seems logical that somebody who worked at the company was surreptitiously making a spare key for each of the safes, and then using that key to break in. But who and how did he do it without getting caught? More distressingly is that the investigation reveals that everybody who could have made the keys has a good alibi except for one. And the only reason that person wasn't able to supply the police with an alibi is that that person is dead, having gone missing at sea a few years back.

Still, they have to operate on the assumption that perhaps the guy only went missing at sea but survived, since his body was never actually found. Time to find his widow and investigate further.

The Third Key is actually pretty good for a police procedural, even if there's no new ground being broken here. The crime story ultimately fits together reasonably well, which is something reasonably important for a movie in the genre. The movie also benefits from the location shooting of London as it was in the mid-1950s.

The DVD itself is bare bones, with no features whatsoever, and my Blu-ray player not even showing a proper chapter menu. But for an obscure movie like this, it's nice that the movie is even available, and at a moderate price. The Third Key is a movie I can strongly recommend.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

FXM Retro watch, October 4/5, 2017

I try to look through FXM's schedule at least once a week. When I did it last weekend, I noticed that The Left Hand of God is going to be on tomorrow morning at 11:50 AM, and then again Thursday at 8:50 AM. Humphrey Bogart isn't quite as good here as he was in most of his earlier movies, but everybody tries. When I did my blog post on it five years ago, the movie was coming up on TCM. I actually can't recall the last time it was on FXM (or really the Fox Movie Channel since I'm guessing it was that long ago).

Both showings of The Left Hand of God will be followed by Five Gates to Hell, a movie thatI don't think I'd ever heard of before. Apparently it's one of those movies that Fox only distributed, written and directed by James Clavell, and a cast that's B-list at best. Women guerrillas? Sounds like it could be interesting. And I can see why somebody might pair it with The Left Hand of God.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Dunes Around the Woman

There's a stereotype based on the idea that foreign films are "arty" and "pretentious" and that this is a good reason not to like them. It's not true, of course; foreign films span almost all the genres that Hollywood films do with the possible exception of the summer blockbuster. But there are foreign films that certainly give rise to this belief. A good example would be Woman in the Dunes.

Eiji Okada plays Niki, a schooteacher and amateur entomologist who goes to some isolated seaside place looking for a specific rare type of sand bug. He traipses across the dunes, but he finds that he spends too long there, as he misses the last bus back to civilization. (You'd think he would have brought a map with him.) He's in luck, however, in that he meets some villagers who are willing to put him up for the night with one of their number. The only thing is, she lives at the bottom of a cliff, and access down is by ladder.

In the morning Niki finds that he's not at the bottom of a cliff, but at the bottom of a sand pit. (How and why a house wound up there is a good question that as far as I can tell wasn't answered.) Living in the house is an unnamed woman (Kyoko Kishida) who tells Niki that she has to keep moving the sand all the time because otherwise it would swallow up her house. In fact, the unceasing sand dunes swallowed her husband and child. (If she ever even had a husband or child.) As to why she doesn't just abandon the house, she claims that if they let the dunes swallow her house, the dunes would eventually swallow the rest of the village, too. Move to higher ground already.

The woman can't move to higher ground anyhow because the other villagers won't let her. They've removed the ladder overnight, and a harness-type system like you see dropped from helicopters to give the woman provisions. Niki finds himself a prisoner and slave at the bottom of the sand pit, constantly moving sand even though he doesn't want to. In fact, he has the sensible idea of wanting to escape. But the villagers are insistent that the woman needs a man.

It goes on like this for nearly two and a half hours. It's tedious, pointless, and full of characters with bizarre motivations that make no sense. And lots and lots of sand. I don't just mean the fact that the house is constantly under threat of being sanded under; I mean languorous shots of sand moving slowly. And if that's enough there's more sand for you.

Amazingly, the IMDb reviewers praise this one to high heaven, for reasons that frankly baffle me. Criterion released this one on DVD and Blu-ray, so if you want to judge for yourself, you can always get it on DVD or Blu-ray, or just wait for the next time TCM shows it in Silent Sunday Nights now that they have the contract with Criterion.

Trailblazing Women returns for a third season

For the last two Octobers, TCM has run a Trailblazing Women series in conjunction with the Women in Film foundation. We're back into October, so it's time for another go-round.

Illeana Douglas returns, interviewing a series of co-hosts about the various nights' movies. The feature will run every Monday in October, with this first Monday looking at female screenwriters in the silent and early sound era. Because heaven knows we haven't learned enough about Frances Marion. Tonight's co-host, Leslie Dixon, has apparently written and/or produced over a dozen movies.

It's nice that we get a couple of movies that rarely show up on TCM, however, such as Dynamite early tomorrow morning at 5:00 AM.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Monster of the month

We're already into October, which means Halloween comes up at the end of the month. Of course, it's become common in recent years to draw out holidays for a long time, notably Halloween and Christmas. So a lot of places spend all of October doing Halloween-type stuff.

TCM is no different; there are going to be horror movies sprinkled throughout the month. There are going to be generic horror movies on Tuesday nights, mostly likely picked because Halloween falls on a Tuesday this year. But there's also a "Monster of the Month" in addition to the traditional Star of the Month (more on that one at the end of the week). TCM will be showing a bunch of Dracula movies on Sunday in prime time. For the most part, this means a limited number of movies because Silent Sunday Nights won't have Dracula movies.

As I understand it, there was a copyright problem for F.W. Murnau and folks from the estate of Bram Stoker when they made Nosferatu, because apparently Dracula is the only vampire or something; I wouldn't be surprised if that caused problems with other retellings of the tale in the silent era. Besides, Hollywood only would have made one silent Dracula if anybody had bothered to make it. But Nosferatu is this week's Silent Sunday Night selection, overnight tonight at 12:30 AM.