Sunday, January 31, 2021

Snakes on an RV

One of the movies that recently started showing up in the FXM rotation is Race With the Devil. It's going to be on again tomorrow at 1:30 PM and again Tuesday morning at 11:45 AM. So, having recorded it from a previous FXM showing, I watched it to do a post on here.

Peter Fonda plays motorcycle racer Roger, friends with Frank (Warren Oates), who seems to be his race crew, although that's not really important since that's not what the movie is about. Frank has bought a state-of-the-art (at least for the mid-1970s) RV, and is planning to go on vacation from their home in Texas to Colorado to get in some skiing and other fun. Frank is going with his wife Alice (Loretta Swit), and Roger and his wife Kelly (Lara Parker) are welcome to come along.

So the two couples set off, and I'd think that having to spend that much time together in a cramped RV would make the two couples start to hate each other by the end of the trip, but again, that's not what the movie is about. After a day's worth of driving, Frank finds an isolated country road and, with no indication of whether or not this is private property or whether camping is allowed, decides that this would be a good place to stop and spend the night. After all, it doesn't make that much difference where they stop, since they're self-contained and can make dinner and bed down anywhere.

The ladies walk the dog and the guys do some motorbike riding; eventually, the two guys and up on a bluff on one side of a river, looking across to the other side where there only seems to be one dead tree that hasn't fallen over yet. But as they look, they see some people start a bonfire and start up some sort of singing. The guys have a pair of binoculars so that they can get a better view, but that might be a mistake. What they see is actually an apparent human sacrifice from a Satanic religious sect! Oh dear. But worse is that the wives, worried about where their husbands are, call out. Of course the Satanists are going to hear them, putting everybody in jeopardy!

So we have the makings of an interesting little movie, with the couples trying to escape in the RV with the Satanists chasing on foot, with the added problem for the couples that they drove over a shallow creek on their way to the campsite and get stuck on the way out, escaping just in time. They could just drive home (or to Colorado, I suppose) overnight, not taking any further part in the murder investigation, but the Satanists smashed a back window; also, having witnessed a crime, the couples feel obligated to tell the police.

The bad news for them is that it means they have to remain in the area. And somehow, these Satanists have a lot of support in the region. So much support, in fact, that it seems as though they can round up thousands of people to go chasing after our two couples, together with the infrastructure needed to do the chasing. Simply beating them up, killing them, and dumping the bodies in shallow graves is what I'd think would be the most likely thing for the Satanists to try to do, but instead, these Satanists act as though they want to terrorize the couples before finally killing them.

With that, the couples are faced with a series of increasingly implausible, and increasingly hilarious scenarios foist upon them by the Satanists who chase them all over west Texas. I think my favorite was when one of the wives opened up a cabinet and found... a rattlesnake! I was rather hoping Warren Oates might say "Get these motherfucking snakes off the motherfucking RV!", but nobody had considered that juicy bit of dialog in the 1970s.

Race With the Devil was conceived as horror, but to me as horror it doesn't quite work. As unintentional comedy however, it's incredibly funny and entertaining. Sit down with a bunch of friends, grab a big bowl of popcorn, and have fun yelling at the scree at the silliness of it all. Race With the Devil has received a DVD release, as part of a two-movie set with another Fonda movie I blogged about not too long ago, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.

TCM's Cicely Tyson tribute

Actress Cicely Tyson died during the week at the age of 96. I'd been meaning to do a post on her passing, but have been busiy with other things.

Fortunately, TCM had already scheduled an evening of her movies for tonight, in the couple of hours of prime time before Silent Sunday Nights. This was scheduled well before Tyson died, as it's on the monthly schedule that I downloaded at the beginnign of the month. I don't know if TCM was able to get anybody in to do new intros and outros, but it wouldn't suprise me if they were able to get Ben Mankiewicz to do that.

Anyhow, the evening of programming has two films, Tyson's Oscar-nominated performance in Sounder at 8:00 PM, followed by another pretty good performance in A Man Called Adam at 10:00 PM, starring Sammy Davis Jr. as an alcoholic jazz trumpeter.

While looking for a trailer for Sounder, I also came across the following:

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Killers (1964)

A couple of months back when TCM did a spotlight on the Film Foundation. One of the movies they showed was the 1964 version of The Killers. It's going to be on again as part of Noir Alley, overnight tonight at 12:30 AM and then again tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM. So I sat down to watch it and do a review here.

As you may know, there's a 1946 movie called The Killers based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and building a fuller story around that short story. This 1964 version is a sort of remake in that it takes the original Hemingway story and, like the earlier movie, extends it, although as it turns out not in quite the same way. John Cassavetes plays Johnny North, who is teaching at a school for the blind. Two men come in, Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager), looking for Johnny. It turns out that these two are contract killers, with a $25,000 contract to kill Johnny. They find him, and Johnny seems strangely resigned to his death.

That's more or less where the Hemingway story ended, but both movies decided to add a much bigger story: why was Johnny so accepting of his fate that he doesn't do a darn thing to keep these guys from killing him? Charlie is the brains of the operation, and realizes that there must be something much more than the $25,000 out there or else why would anybody want Johnny dead? So Charlie decides he and Lee are going to find out what the bigger payoff is, to see if they can get at it themselves.

This leads them to Miami, where they meet Earl Sylvester, a mechanic working on muscle cars and other sports cars. Earl had known Johnny out on the west coast when Johnny was a racecar driver. But Johnny got in a smash-up that more or less ended his career. Along the way, he had met Sheila (Angie Dickinson) and fallen in love with her, but Earl warned Johnny that Sheila was the kept woman of Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan), so any romance was doomed.

But there's more to Johnny and Sheila's relationship. At some point after the smash-up, Johnny has been reduced to doing demolition derby and short dirt track racing, but as related by Mickey (Norman Fell), Browning's right-hand man at the time, Sheila finds Johnny again. He would be perfect as the driver in a scheme Jack is cooking up. That plot is a heist of a mail delivery which will be carrying the takings for a bunch of resorts on the Pacific coast, and should be close to seven figures. Johnny could use the money, and this is a chance to see Sheila again. Not only will he get to see Sheila; perhaps he can figure out a way to double-cross Browning so that he and Sheila can run off with the money and live happily ever after.

Now, we know from the beginning of the movie that Johnny and Sheila don't live happily ever after. But what happened to sour the relationship? Well, for that, you're going to have to watch this version of The Killers.

There's a lot different between this movie and the 1946 original, but both are absolutely worth watching. The 1964 version was originally conceived as a TV movie, but the network rejected it because of the amoral violence, so it got pitched as a movie, turning out to be Ronald Reagan's final film before he would switch to politics and run for Governor of California.

There are any number of places in which the TV movie origins are evident, most notably in the interiors, which really look like they've got a TV budget, as though they came out of episodes of the 1960s Dragnet, even though that series debuted later. There's also some scenes that are obviously done on the Universal backlot.

But the movie itself is solid, with Cassavetes good, Marvin playing a character similar to the one he essayed in Violent Saturday, and Reagan being surprisingly good cast against type since his forte was really good guys. Here, Reagan acts and delivers his dialogue as though he's channeling Jack Webb's Joe Friday, if Webb had believed that the cops weren't your friend and instead on the take. It might be a strange characterization but it works; after all, somebody like Browning wouldn't be the sort of oafish hoodlum that Clu Gulager comes close to playing (rightly, I think).

So despite the low budget, the 1964 The Killers is a very entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. Criterion released a DVD with both versions of the movie.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Una giornata particolare

I don't think I had done a blog post on a foreign film recently, so I decided to watch A Special Day off the DVD since it's on DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

In 1938, German Führer Adolf Hitler visited Italy to meet with Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini and sign a treaty. Mussolini wanted to impress Hitler, so large cheering crowds were arranged all along the train's route and a big military parade was organized in Rome.

Antonietta Taberi (Sophia Loren) is a housewife and mother of six living in a cramped apartment with her husband Emanuele (John Vernon) and those children. All of them have a part to play in those cheering crowds at the parade, except for Mom, who's going to stay home to clean the apartment and make certain the family has dinner ready when they get home from the parade. It's not much of a life for Antonietta, whose only joy in life seems to be her mynah bird.

Worse for Antonietta, the bird escapes from its cage and flies out the window, landing on the sill of an apartment across the way. In that apartment lives Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), an announcer for Italian National Radio who isn't working that day because, well, that will be explained later in the movie. Gabriele catches the bird and invites Antonietta over to pick up the bird.

The two talk, and one thing leads to another, with Antonietta eventually bringing Gabriele back to her place for conversation to bring something into her lonely life, and perhaps a bit more. The two spend most of the rest of the day together, revealing some secrets about themselves.

Surprisingly, that's mostly what happens in the movie, although Gabriele's secrets drive the plot. He's got friends who have political views and lifestyles that have gotten them in trouble with the Fascist regime, and Gabriele is the same, so certainly trouble for him can't be far behind; indeed, he already lost that job at the radio station. And Antonietta seems to be committed to Fascism, or at least politically naïve enough to keep a scrapbook of the virile Mussolini.

So instead, A Special Day is a character study of these two very lonely people, one who has no life outside her family and the other a subversive. The two have the lion's share of the dialogue, with Antonietta's family showing up in the first and last scenes, and the apartment complex concierge coming in from time to time to snoop on the ad hoc couple that's not really a couple.

Unsurprisingly, the character study works because of the strong acting from the two leads; would you really expect any less from either Loren or Mastroianni? From the moment we see Gabriele we can tell that he's keeping something deeply secret, while with Antonietta it's so obvious that she's lonely and looking for any escape from her humdrum life.

In the print TCM ran (which I'd guess is the Criterion print, although I don't have the DVD), there was a card at the beginning mentioning this is a restoration, and specifically mentioning the color timing. Indeed, the production design and the color is itself almost as much of a character as the two leads. Antonietta's apartment is suitably cramped, drab, and run-down, helped by a washed-out color scheme that is mostly browns, with some dull green and a few reds in the Italian and German flags. As noticeable as this is, it's also quickly unobtrusive.

For anybody who doesn't need their movies to be full of action, explosions, and special effects, I can definitely recommend A Special Day.

Happy Anniversary to me!

It was 13 years ago today that I wrote one of those "Hello World" posts that I guess were a thing back when blogging was bigger and lots of people had longer-form print blogs. In that time, I've tried to write a post every day, foiled a couple of times by internet outages and I think once by simply forgetting to type up a post. Some days I have more than one thing to post about, or more sadly I find out that some old-time actor died after writing what was intended to be the one post for the day, so in those 13 years I've closed in on 6000 posts, something I think is going to happen in December if I keep up the current rate of posting.

I've kept up the mostly text blogging, with some use of stills or in more recent years, embedding video, even as internet trends have changed over the years. There's photo blogs, video blogs on Youtube, and increasingly, podcasts. I especially haven't thought about doing the podcasting or video blogs for a couple of reasons. One is that I don't have a good camera for doing a video blog, and then there's the fact that I have a face for radio but worse, not the voice for radio. Seriously, I worked at my college radio station and they wouldn't let me anywhere near doing voiceovers for ads because of my terrible voice! There's also the fact that it's so much quicker to read a post than to sit through a rambling video of a talking head talking.

Unfortunately, I think the long-term decline of the text blog has also lead to a decline in my already paltry readership. For a little bit last year I was posting on Twitter about any new post that went up, at least the ones that were actual movie reviews, but I wasn't particularly diligent about keeping that up. I should probably get back into it.

Here's to 13 more years of great old movies!

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Cloris Leachman, 1926-2021

Oscar-winner for The Last Picture Show dies at 94

Leachman also worked with Mel Brooks on movies like Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety:

She also had a memorable turn as a TCM Guest Programmer, picking Bridge on the River Kwai for a reason that shocked Robert Osborne: she had never seen it before and wanted to! Unfortunately, I couldn't find that clip on Youtube, and while a web search revealed a page on TCM's site about Leachman being Guest Programmer, the revamping of the website seems to have borked the link.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

20,000 Years with John Garfield

I see that I still have a couple of movies left on the DVR from when Ann Sheridan was TCM Star of the Month back in June. Among them is Castle on the Hudson. Sheridan and male lead John Garfield being Warner Bros. contract players, it's unsurprising that this one got a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Garfield plays Tommy Gordon, a gangster living the high life who seems to get away with the crimes he commits, except for the fact that he doesn't want to commit any crime on Saturday because that's his unlucky day. (That's a lot of foreshadowing.) Sheridan plays his girlfriend Kay, who'll stick by him through thick and thin.

Unfortunately, Tommy's underlings get him involved in a crime that takes place on a Saturday night, and sure enough, the police pinch him at a high-class nightclub that's presumably a mob front. In any case, Tommy gets convicted and sent up to Sing Sing.

Tommy thinks he'll be able to waltz through prison, especially since he's got a bunch of money. Obviously he'd seen Blackwell's Island and how the gangster prisoners there were able to run the place. But the warden here, Long (Pat O'Brien) isn't about to have any of that nonsense. He's one of those wardens who actually believes in rehabilitation, but is also not a softy. Everybody gets the same level of discipline until they show they deserve more or less, and that discipline is going to rehabilitate them.

In prison, Tommy becomes friends with Steven Rockford (Burgess Meredith), who is planning an escape. Steven sets up the plot such that Tommy should be able to escape with him, but then Tommy realizes that the planned break is on a Saturday. Fat chance of Tommy taking part in it. And sure enough, the plot fails, with Steven getting killed by the guards in the process.

Tommy may not exactly be a model prisoner, but he is at least more docile from the time he spent in solitary and the other indignities that Warden Long visited upon him for not wanting to go along with the prison rules. And Long eventually thinks that perhaps even someone like Tommy is being rehabilitated.

But then poor Kay is the passenger in a car crash that nearly kills her. Tommy gets a telegram, and Long rather bizarrely gives Tommy a one-day furlough -- on the honor system! -- so that Tommy can go to New York and see Kay before she dies. Some of Tommy's enemies see him and set up an attempted hit, which is foiled by... Kay, who shoots Tommy's enemy dead. Not that the authorities are going to believe any of this, even if Kay should survive.

If the plot sounds familiar, that's because Castle on the Hudson is a remake of Warner Bros. pre-Code movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. It's basically a programmer for Garfield, who was a rising star at Warner Bros. from the very beginning of his career, as well as for Sheridan, running about 77 minutes.

Even though it's just a programmer, having the cast that it does ensures that it's a pretty good movie. It might be better remembered if it weren't such a close remake of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which had even bigger stars, but that's unfair to Castle on the Hudson. It really can stand on its own, and the movie's big fault, that furlough, is a problem in both movies.

So you should probably watch both Castle on the Hudson and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and judge for yourself.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Welcome to Hard Times

Another of the movies that I had the chance to watch and do a post on because it's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archives collection is the western Welcome to Hard Times.

Henry Fonda plays Will Blue, the pacifist mayor of the small western town of Hard Times, or as close as the town has to a mayor. Coming to town one day is the mysterious Man from Bodie (Aldo Ray), who is violent for what seems like no good reason. He's at the saloon looking for Molly Riordan (Janice Rule) looking to rape her, and that leads to a confrontation between Bodie and much of the town resulting in a whole bunch of people getting killed and the town being burned to the ground.

The few survivors are Will, Molly, young boy Jimmy Fee (Michael Shea), and Indian medicine man John Bear (Royal Dano). There's not much for them to do but try to rebuild now that Bodie has left. They're in a bit of luck, however, in that Zar (Keenan Wynn) comes to town one day. Zar runs a traveling saloon/bordello, and realizing that there are miners around who are going to spend all their earnings on booze and women, this might not be a bad place to stop for the time being.

Zar and his women think that Molly is the wife of Will, and Jimmy their son, something that Will for one isn't particularly willing to disabuse Zar of. Molly is in many ways tremendously unhappy with this arrangement. She thinks Will is a coward for not even trying to do anything about Bodie, and she's going to make damn sure that, should Bodie ever come back, Jimmy might at least be able to shoot Bodie and not just be a coward like Will. But Molly stays with Will in part because Jimmy needs both a mother figure and a father figure, and where is she going to go anyway?

Hard Times starts to grow a bit with all the miners spending their money there, and the brother of the old general store owner even shows up. With a consignment of goods having been paid for and only now being delivered, why not set up shop here and provide a needed service? Even with all this activity, however, it's going to be pretty difficult to get the town going the way a town should be.

And of course, there's always the specter that the Man from Bodie might show up again. Who's going to be able to survive when that happens? And will Will get some stereotypical courage? Will that even help?

Welcome to Hard Times is one of those westerns that doesn't have all that much action, most of it being confined to the very beginning and the very end. But it's also not really a character study. I think that the combination ultimately leads to something less than the sum of its parts. It's not bad, to be sure, but it's also not particularly memorable, even considering the actors playing supporting characters, like Elisha Cook and Warren Oates.

Still, I think fans of westerns will still probably enjoy Welcome to Hard Times.

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Young Savages

When Shelley Winters was TCM's Star of the Month back in November, one of her movies that I hadn't had the chance to blog about yet showed up, The Young Savages. So I DVRed it to watch later and do a post on it.

The movie starts off promisingly, with three adolescents walking through slum-like streets somewhere in New York, until they come upon a particular person, and stab him to death. The three young men give their knives to somebody to dispose of, and run off with the police chasing after them. The police eventually catch up fairly quickly and arrest the three.

Those three are members of an Italian-American gang, the Thunderbirds: Arthur Reardon (John Davis Chandler) was the leader of the three, "Batman" Aposto (Neil Nephew) his right-hand man, and Danny di Pace (Stanley Kristien). Their target was just a boy, and a blind one at that, Puerto Rican Roberto Escalante. His mother (Vivian Nathan) wants justice, but unsurprisingly doesn't think she's going to get it.

The Manhattan District Attorney, Dan Cole (Edward Andrews) wants the death penalty, because he's running for Governor, and needs a tough-on-crime approach to get the votes he needs. This is tough, in that one of the three accused is only 15 and so not supposed to be tried as an adult. Also, he's not going to prosecute the case directly, instead giving it to his assistant DA, Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster), who grew up in the sort of slums where both the Thunderbirds and the dead boy live, but who escaped to become a lawyer with a wife Karin (Dina Merrill) and daughter about the age of the three accused.

To be honest, however, Hank probably ought to recuse himself from the case. Danny di Pace is the son of one Mary di Pace (Shelley Winters), who was the girlfriend of Hank many years ago, before either of them got married and started a family. Mary's husband up and left them, but she's convinced that Danny is a good kid who would never get involved in a stabbing like this.

Hank investigates, and it turns out that there's a lot going on. In addition to the Thunderbirds, there's a Puerto Rican gang, the Horseheads, that have gotten into it with the Thunderbirds, and you get the impression that the two gangs would be perfectly fine just being left alone to mete out their own brand of justice on each other, with the big problem being that innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire.

Also, little Roberto may not have been innocent. One of the Thunderbirds claims that he was helping the Horseheads by gathering up all of their knives after a rumble between the two gangs. That way, none of the Horseheads would have any weapons on them, and who would suspect a blind boy of being armed when he can't see what he's aiming at? Also, Roberto's older sister supposedly turned to prostitution to make the family's ends meet, and Roberto may have known.

Also, both gangs have it in for Hank. Hank was originally born Bellini, and there are apparently people who feel he left them behind. The Puerto Ricans think that by trying to get to the truth, Hank is really trying to get the Italians off. And Karin thinks executing these three kids isn't going to solve society's problems. Dan or Hank should flip the switch on the chair themselves. To make matters worse, a couple of gang memebers accost Karin in the elevator in their apartment building, while later, other gang members assault Hank on the subway, because why would an ADA not just drive his own car or be driven around? Eventually we get to the trial and a resolution of some sort.

As I said at the beginning, The Young Savages starts off promisingly enough. John Frankenheimer directed, the first of four movies he made with Lancaster, as he would go on to mention in the Star of the Month piece on Lancaster that he narrated. Frankenheimer uses some camera angles that Hollywood wasn't really using at the time and which look nice even if they don't add much to the narrative.

And it's in the narrative that the movie ultimately displays the weaknesses it has. The producers and writers were obviously trying to make something hard-hitting and with biting social commentary, but what we get by the time to case goes to trial feels more like an afterschool special with implausible motivations and emotional reactions. The trial didn't seem particularly authentic to me, either.

On the plus side, the performances are about as good as you can expect given the script, while there's a lot of New York location shooting, which is nice to see how the city looked and functioned 60 years ago. But that doesn't completely mask the flaws in the film's third act.

The Young Savages does seem to be available both on DVD and via streaming video.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Children of a Lesser God

One of the movies that I got the chance to record thanks to TCM's Women Make Film series was Children of a Lesser God. I think I had recorded it on my old DVR when TCM did the series on the handicapped in the movies, but never got around to doing a post on it before the old DVR crapped out. So now I finally did watch it to do a post here.

William Hurt plays James Leeds, who at the opening of the film is taking a ferry to get to an island where he's going to start his new job, that being a speech instructor at an institute for deaf youths. Supposedly he's good as he's worked at some of the best institutes, but he's also held a bunch of other jobs, as his boss Dr. Franklin (Philip Bosco) sees on reading his resume.

James' class consists of six high-school aged students, and James uses some unorthodox methods to teach them, such as using music, not just because deaf people can feel the rhythm, but to get them to sing (ultimately, five of the class do a couple of musical numbers for parents' night-type functions). And when one of the students says learning to speak can help him date hearing women, there's some humorous dialogue involving the young men's pick-up lines.

But the real action comes when James goes to lunch with the rest of the staff and students. In the kitchen he sees one of the kitchen staff gettin extremely angry -- in sign language. That woman is Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin). She was a student at the institute, and clearly quite bright and expressive. But something happened, and she turned into a woman who doesn't want to speak and has walled herself off into this dead-end job. James asks about her out of curiosity, but it's not his place to do anything.

But then one day he goes to the school's swimming pool and finds Sarah swimming naked. James eventually jumps in fully clothed, and it's clear that he's falling in love with her. The feeling might be mutual, but of course Sarah has a whole bunch of personal issues to work through. James eventually approaches Sarah's mother (Piper Laurie) to figure out what the deal is with Sarah, but that's a broken relationship too.

Sarah had an older sister (never seen in the movie), and all of big sister's boyfriends found that Sarah was good at sex, but that seems to be the only reason they had any interest in her. Sarah's dad walked out on the family, not being able to deal with having a deaf daughter, and as you can guess everybody else felt they might be responsible for that. And neither mother nor daughter is particularly thrilled that James is asking them about their relationship.

But James keeps pursuing Sarah, to the point that she quits her job and moves in with him. Things seem to be going well as the two go to a party together and Sarah even cleans up at poker, which she apparently never played before. But Sarah feels that she's being asked to do all the work of trying to fit into the hearing world, as opposed to James meeting her halfway, so she runs back home to mother.

Children of a Lesser God is a finely crafted movie, made unique that deafness as a central plot point was so rarely used in a Hollywood love story. (Yeah, there's Johnny Belinda, but Jane Wyman's character doesn't get to be a truly independent woman the way Sarah does.) Sarah and James both have completely plausible motivations, even when we can see how what they're doing is causing them some serious problems in their lives. Matlin won the Oscar, and Hurt gives a really good performance that got him a nomination.

If there's one problem I had, it's that some of the plot lines were left hanging, especially with James' students. One of the six is a bright but extremely introverted young man who, like Sarah, doesn't seem to want to speak. I expected to see the stereotypically happy ending of having him speak near the finale, but that never happens.

Still, any flaws I thought there were in the movie were minors ones. Children of a Lesser God is a worthy movie with moving performances, and I can definitely recommend it. It does seem to be available on DVD too.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Gosford Park

I've stated before that I can't really afford all the premium movie channels, so I only get to watch them during the various free preview weekends that DirecTV (and I'm assuming other cable and satellite operators) have, and DVR a whole bunch of movies during those times. Several months back, I recorded Gosford Park, and only now finally got around to watching it.

The movie starts off with a title pointing out that it's November 1932, and with a couple of people getting into a car on a very rainy Friday. Those people are Countess Trentham (Maggie Smith) and her servant Mary MacEachran (Kelly Macdonald) along with their driver. They're going to one of those weekend-long parties held by the upper class in those days that you've probably seen in movies of the pre-Code era; this particular party is being hosted by Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Sir William (Michael Gambon), the Countess being Sylvia's aunt.

There are a bunch of other people coming, including Sylvia's sisters and their husbands; British actor and singer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) together with Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban); and a guy who's fallen on hard times, Freddie Nesbitt along with his wife Mabel, Freddie being there hoping to consummate a business deal with Sir William.

Most of the invited guests have brought servants of their own, who are to work with the McCordles' staff, which is headed by butler Jennings (Alan Bates), cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), and Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren). Among the servants brought by the guests are Weissman's strange Scotsman Henry (Ryan Phillippe), who may or may not be an imposter; and Robert Parks (Clive Owen), in service to Sylvia's sister Louisa and her husband.

During the first evening there, it turns out that any number of people have good reason to dislike Sir William. There's the usual family tensions, such as him possibly cutting off an allowance to Trentham; the business dealings with Nesbitt; or resentments among the various sisters. Weissman is probably the one person who doesn't care, as he's constantly trying to place phone calls to Hollywood to deal with the new England-set Charlie Chan movie he's trying to get funded.

More interestingly, the downstairs servants have their own set of problems to deal with. Sir William became wealthy from having owned several factories. But rumor has it that he would sleep with the female workers, and when one of them would get "in trouble" (of course a euphemism for being pregnant), Sir William would take the resulting children to an orphanage and sack the workers in question. Nobody would question him, since who would believe this about an upstanding member of the aristocracy, especially if he's only being questioned by a manual laborer.

We see the resentments at the hunting party, as somebody nearly shoots Sir William in the ear, but it's only after dinner on the second night that we see somebody go into the room where Sir William is cleaning his gun that a presumably male figure stabs him and he dies. The police come to investigate, in the form of Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry), who may not be competent enough to solve the case.

There's a lot going on in Gosford Park, and depending on your perspective that may or may not be to the movie's benefit. I personally found it complex and requiring very close watching. If you get up to go to the bathroom or get refreshments without pausing, you're going to miss a lot; even if you do pause, you may have to stop and consider what's been going on before restarting.

The movie also has a rather languorous pace, running a little over 130 minutes before the closing credits come on; the murder doesn't occur until about 80 minutes in, something rather different from a lot of murder mysteries. But then Gosford Park isn't really about the murder mystery, instead being about the relationships between the various characters, which do mostly come together at the end.

Those issues having been dealt with, the positive is the acting, which is mostly quite good, and the attention to detail, which I'm sure would look nice on a pristine print on Blu-ray with a good TV. I'm watching on an older TV and I'm not certain how much compression DirecTV uses, but this was one of the movies that made me wonder whether something was up with the print.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Briefs for January 22-23, 2021

There doesn't seem to be all that much in the way of obituaries this week, which I suppose isn't a bad thing. Singer and sometimes actor Jimmie Rodgers died on Monday. He had a role in the early 1960s movie The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come which was in the FXM rotation a long time ago, possible even when it was still the Fox Movie Channel. Somehow it doesn't show up in a search of the blog, although I thought I had done a post on it. There's also Nathalie Delon, a last name you'll likely recognize because she was the ex-wife of Alain Delon, and acted alongside him in Le Samouraï, a movie that would be on my "blind spot" list if I were taking part in that particular blogathon.

There's some stuff coming back to FXM, or coming to it for the first time. Already today there was Race With the Devil, which kicks off tomorrow's FXM Retro block at 3:10 AM. Later, at 8:35 AM, you can see The 300 Spartans, a subject of a post back in 2011. The daypart will end with a Biblical epic, Sodom and Gomorrah at 12:20 PM.

Over on TCM, there's East Side, West Side tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. I mentioned that recently as the sort of movie that MGM couldn't get quite right. But that's something where you should probably watch for yourself and judge. Later in the day on TCM, there's Black Legion at noon and The Best Man at 1:30 PM, both of which are very much worth watching.

Finally, I'll leave you with a clip that's always relevant, but especially so in the last two weeks or so:

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks #341: Police Detectives

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is "Police Detectives", with the word "police" being used here to distinguish from private investigators.

OK, not quite like this

There are a lot of police movies out there, so I decided to come up with a theme-within-a-theme, and pick three movies in which the person investigating the crime -- or at least one of the people investigating the crime -- is a fish out of water from another jurisdiction:

Coogan's Bluff (1968). Clint Eastwood plays an Arizona sheriff's deputy who gets sent to New York City to bring back a man being extradited to Arizona. Of course, the man escapes, and Eastwood tries to capture the man himself without particularly consulting his NYPD liaisons, led by Lee J. Cobb.

Brannigan (1975). John Wayne plays the title character, a Chicago policeman who gets sent to London to bring back a mobster (John Vernon) being extradited to America. Once again, the mobster escapes, and Wayne has to play detective to find him, albeit with a bit more help from his liaison in Scotland Yard (Richard Attenborough).

Gorky Park (1983). Three bodies are found in Moscow's Gorky Park, and a Moscow detective who's the son of a now-dead bigwig in the Communist party (William Hurt) investigates. One of the dead turns out to be an American, which brings fur dealer Lee Marvin into the case, as well as New York cop Brian Dennehy, who happens to be related to one of the victims. He and Hurt investigate more or less together, although of course Dennehy isn't officially on the case.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Torch Song in reverse

I noticed that Torch Song is on the TCM schedule, tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM. Not too long ago, I watched a different movie that reminded me of Torch Song. That one is called Night Song and, not having blogged about it before, now would be a good time to do so.

Merle Oberon plays Cathy Mallory, an unmarried socialite living in San Francisco with her aunt, Miss Willey (Ethel Barrymore) and who is a patron of the arts. She and some of her friends go to the symphony, and after that they go to a little hole-in-the-wall bar off a side street that has a jazz combo playing. The combo has a pianist, Dan Evans (Dana Andrews), and Cathy thinks he's pretty good.

Cathy goes over to the piano to chat up Dan, but he reveals that he's blind, and rather snottily bitter about it too, spurning any advances because after all, who's really going to love a blind guy? They're just going to pity him. Dan's best friend Chick (Hoagy Carmichael) would like to see Dan get better, and go back to working on that concerto that he was composing before he went blind, but who knows if that's going to happen?

So Cathy comes up with a daft idea. Perhaps Chick could arrange for Dan to be somewhere that Cathy could bump into him, like at the beach. Only this time, Cathy is going to pretend to be blind and not well-to-do, so that Dan won't think this new woman he's just met is taking pity on him. Now, of course, the obvious question is what's going to happen when Dan finds out that Cathy is in fact fully sighted. I'd think he'd hate her for lying to him and treating him as the butt of some sort of sick joke.

At any rate, Dan doesn't figure out that this is rich and sighted Cathy Mallory, and becomes friends with the woman he thinks is blind, her aunt in tow because she supposedly needs a sighted companion, too. Cathy hears the concerto and thinks it's good and that Dan should keep working on it. She also learns that this is one of those forms of blindness that might be curable, but it's going to need $5,000 (a fairly substantial sum back in the late 1940s) and a trip east for the operation to do so.

Ah, but Cathy has a solution for that. She has the money to set up a contest to commission a new concerto, with a grand prize of... $5,000! Oh, and Cathy most definitely isn't in any way going to influence the judging to make certain that Dan's concerto wins, no sirree.

So of course we know that Dan is going to win the contest, and the prize also includes the great pianist Artur Rubinstein (a real concert pianist back in the day, playing himself) is going to perform the concerto... in New York in a few months' time, those few months being more than enough time for Dan to go to New York too and get that operation. Of course, once Dan regains his sight, he's not so sure he wants to see the "blind" Cathy any more since he doesn't want her to think he's pitying her. "Sighted" Cathy comes to New York....

Oh boy is the plot to Night Song ridiculous. The acting is good enough, but dammit if all those plot holes about the characters' motivation don't stay in the front of my mind throughout the movie. Fans of classical music will probably enjoy the music, although of course it really pops up at the end so you have to sit through a good 80 minutes or so before you get to it.

Night Song was originally released by RKO, so unsurprisingly it has received a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Inner Sanctum

Some months back, another of my DVD purchases was a cheap Mill Creek box set of crime movies. Looking for something short to watch and do a review on, I looked at the running times of the movies on the first disk I took out and settled on the movie Inner Sanctum.

The title really has nothing to do with the movie, instead being named after a popular radio show of the day. The movie starts off on a train, where a woman is a passenger next to a mysterious older man, Dr. Valonius (Fritz Leiber). Valonius has some sort of gift that allows him to tell the exact time without neding a watch. And then he tells his female companion not to file her nails because the train is about to go around a curve and she'll hurt herself. Sure enough she does, at which point Valonius goes into the main story....

Harold Dunlap (Charles Russell) gets off a train in some middle-of-nowhere town. He's having some sort of argument with his fiancée which results in the two of them getting in a scuffle and Harold accidentally stabbing her to death when she comes after him with a nail file. Harold figures the best way to dispose of the body is to put it on the train. It won't be found for a while, and nobody knows that Harold got off in this town. However, there's a catch, in that a slightly obnoxious young boy, Mike (Dale Belding), is at the train station, and saw Harold.

Harold tries to hitch a ride out of town, but there's been heavy rain and flooding has washed out several of the roads and bridges. He's stopped by McFee (Billy House), a journalist who went to cover the floods, and told that the road is going to be impassable in the direction he's going, so perhaps Harold should get in the car with him and go someplace where he can spend the night. In town, he's told to go to a certain rooming house where he'll find Mrs. Mitchell (Nana Bryant), who can put him up for a night or two until the roads are cleared.

Among the other people living in the house are Jean Maxwell (Mary Beth Hughes), a young woman with a past who came here from San Francisco for some reason that's never really explained, a couple of older guys, and widow Ruth Bennett (Lee Patrick), who is the mother to... Mike Bennett, whom we already saw back at the train station. Harold is understandably nervous, as he has good reason to believe Mike will put two and two together and figure out what really happened at the station.

Worse, Mrs. Mitchell is more or less out of rooms, so Harold is going to have to double up in the room currently given to Mike, with Mike getting a cot, which he thinks is a grand adventure. There's a sort of semi-suspense, semi-cat-and-mouse game in which Harold tries to figure out what to do while both Mike, and Jean, begin to figure out what happened.

Inner Sanctum is nothing more than a B movie, with a very low budget to go along with that. And yet director Lew Landers makes the most of what little he has. The acting isn't particularly good, but the story more or less works, especially the twist ending when we get back to Dr. Valonius and his passenger on the "real" train. Some of the IMDb reviewers compare it to The Twilight Zone, but I can think of some other comparisons that unfortunately would give away the twist ending.

Inner Sanctum definitely works, and for the price of this cheap box set, it's absolutely worth it. As for the print, it's not the greatest. I'm not certain how much of that is because it's an ultra-cheap box set, and how much of it is because this movie was already cheap at the time it was made. (The box set has a few better-known titles among the B movies.) The production company was something called "M.R.S. Pictures Inc.", which I had never heard of and which apparently only made this one movie. The title cards look vaguely like the producers had access to Columbia's art department since the typeface looks somewhat similar.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Thirty Day Princess

Getting through the backlog of movies on my DVR, I recently sat down to watch Thirty Day Princess, which TCM ran back in August as part of Sylvia Sidney's day in Summer Under the Stars.

Sidney doesn't quite show up at first. Instead, the action starts at the spa baths in the capital city of the Central European kingdom of Taronia. American banker Richard Gresham (Edward Arnold) is on vacation there, and just happens to be in a bath next to the regining monarch, Anatol XII (Henry Stephenson). Anatol strikes up a conversation with Gresham, as His Highness has admiration for a country like America where even the peasants have electricity and running hot water. Taronians are a good people, but the country is underdeveloped.

Ah, but Gresham is a banker! He could figure out a way to fund a bond issue that would help Taronia be able to develop. But there's one catch. Americans don't know anything about Taronia, and would need a public relations campaign to be persuaded to purchase the bonds. Anatol can't do a state visit to America, because there's always the possibility that somebody will start a coup and Anatol won't be able to get back to Taronia.

But Anatol has a daughter, Crown Princess Catterina (Sylvia Sidney), who would be perfect for going to America for that PR tour. The Americans would love a charming princess who has just enough difficulty with English to be lovable. She's up for it, especially since it will get her away from obnoxious fiancé Nicholaus, to whom she's only engaged for political reasons.

So Catterina and some of the King's advisers take the ship to America and, on arrival, Catterina gives a speech. But she collapses at the end of the speech and is taken to the hotel feeling slightly ill. It turns out that she has the mumps, requiring her to quarantine for 30 days, and threatening to put the kibosh on the grand tour.

The bond issue failing would please Porter Madison III (Cary Grant) to no end. He's a newspaper publisher, and his paper prints the sort of populist stuff that generates dislike of bankers like Gresham, who Madison would argue is responsible for that little economic depression that's going on.

Gresham comes up with a backup plan. There are 8 million people in New York; surely, one of them has to look enough like Catterina that they can substitute her with a little training and pass her off as the Princess until the bond issue can be subscribed. It's the sort of daft plot you only see in the movies, of course, but don't think too hard.

Nancy Lane is a struggling actress who can't even pay the rent. She goes to an Automat, where she's accosted by two guys who she thinks are the police wanting her for trying to get a turkey leg without paying for it. Instead, they're actually representatives of Gresham, hired to find a lookalike for Catterina. Nancy, unsurprisingly, looks exactly like Catterina, because Nancy is also played by Sylvia Sidney. (There's one scene of Nancy and Catterina together toward the end.) Nancy could use the money, and who wouldn't like to try out being royalty for a month, so she takes the job.

You can probably guess what happens next, which is that Nancy-as-princess meets Madison, and the two fall in love, while Madison's associates at the paper thinks there might be something fishy and try to prove it. Nicholaus eventually shows up in America to try to prove that the woman Gresham has been trotting out in public isn't actually Catterina. But this being a light comedy, you can suspect that the plot isn't really going to work and people are going to live happily ever after.

Thirty Day Princess is a nice little programmer. Sidney was a fairly big star for Paramount at the time, while Cary Grant was still on the rise, not yet getting the roles that would really make him a big star. They make an appealing enough couple. The plot is nothing earth-shattering, but it's got the sort of predictability that would probably have made Depression-era audiences happy. It all works pleasantly enough, entertaining for the roughly 75 minutes that it runs.

You could do far worse than to watch a movie like Thirty Day Princess. It got a DVD release courtesy of Universal's MOD scheme, and TCM also shows it as being available on a couple of Cary Grant box sets.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

What with tomorrow being Martin Luther King Day....

Some of you may get tomorrow off for the Martin Luther King Day holiday. As always, it's a time for TCM to show a bunch of movies with black leading actors or movies that otherwise look at the black experience in America.

For better or worse, the daytime part of the schedule means seven films all starring Sidney Poitier. Now, Poitier was a fine actor, but sometimes it feels like that there's little enough that TCM has access too, especially considering that Hollywood didn't offer many opportunities for blacks to get good leading roles until relatively recently, so among the studio-era movies, there isn't much choice.

Instead, it's in prime time that things get more interesting. This year sees several documentaries; although I think they've all been run before, they show up infrequently enough that they're more worth mentioning. I couldn't find any mention on the TCM site if somebody like Donald Bogle is coming in to present the movies alongside Ben Mankiewicz, or whether it's a regular TCM host like Jacqueline Stewart who, after all, is professor of film studies and perfectly qualified to present the movies.

The full lineup in prime time is: 8:00 PM You Got to Move -- Stories of Change in the South 9:45 PM Freedom on My Mind Midnight Say Amen, Somebody 2:00 AM Jazz on a Summer's Day 3:30 AM No Maps on My Taps 4:45 AM The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins and 5:30 AM Crisis.

FXM certainly isn't doing anything special for the day.

At least the scenery is nice

Hollywood made a bunch of mod movies in the 1960s that look better than they really are; I think the most recent movie I blogged about that I'd put in that category is A Lovely Way to Die. Hollywood also went over to Europe to use their exotic locations for some of the movies, as in the fun if not particularly great Jack of Diamonds. Recently, I watched another movie in this genre that unfortunately isn't all that much fun: Assignment to Kill.

An opening sequence shows a couple of people skiing down a mountain in Switzerland, when one of them comes upon a body in the snow who it turns out is the victim of a plane crash, although how the body remained buried all that time is beyond me. Patrick O'Neal, trying to look like James Coburn, plays Richard Cutting, an insurance investigator who has something to do with that crash, or will. His boss Eversley (Kent Smith in one scene) tells him about a reclusive business magnate Valayan who has had some claims on his ships that might in fact be sabotage; Eversley wants Cutting to investigate.

This obviously takes Cutting to Switzerland, and the stylish skiing village where the accident occured. The local police inspector seems to have a wry interest in the case, but more worryingly for Cutting is that he sees a couple of guys who are also interested in the case. These turn out to be Valayan's right hand man Matt Wilson (Herbert Lom), and Wilson's henchman called "The Big Man" (Leon Greene). It'll mean some danger for Cutting if Wilson discovers that he's investigating, so he hides from Wilson to get a head start.

The person who was supposed to be on that flight that crashed but whose body hasn't been found is Walter Green (Peter van Eyck). Cutting figures that Walter is hiding out somewhere in his hometown of Zürich, so heads off there. In Zürich, he meets lovely American expat Dominique (Joan Hackett), who might be able to help him find Walter. Apparently, Walter had the goods on Wilson with Wilson being responsible for the sabotage, which is why Wilson would want Walter dead. Walter is alleged to have written an affidavit testifying to Wlison's misdeeds, and wants to give it to Valayan.

It goes on like this, with Matt Wilson chasing after Cutting and Dominique, and then showing up when Cutting finally gets to meet Valayan (John Gielgud). There's a mystery to be solved, and eventually it does, but pretty much nobody gets to live happily ever after.

The big problem with Assignment to Kill is that it's needlessly convoluted, with no real reason for us to care about the story or the characters. With that, all we have left are the Swiss locations. The locations in the Alps are unsurprisingly lovely, while the Zürich pesented here isn't glamorous at all. We get Hollywood's view of what 60s bars might look like, and a bunch of dim neon signs, but that's about it.

It's easy to see why a movie like Assignment to Kill got greenlit, what with a mystery that might have seemed exciting on paper, and those Swiss locations. It's just a shame that what was on paper got translated to something much less on screen. Assignment to Kill did get a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Madame Bovary (1949)

I hadn't intended to do posts on two late-1940s literary adaptations in such close proximity following the airing of the British Anna Karenina the other day. But I only realized last night, not having looked closely enough at the TCM schedule, that the 1949 version of Madame Bovary is on tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM. So I made it a point of watching it to do a post on here.

The movie starts off with an establishing story. Gustave Flaubert (James Mason) wrote the novel Madame Bovary in 1856, and the publication of the novel caused a scandal in France, at that time ruled by Napoleon III. Flaubert was put on trial for indecency, where he claimed that the Madame Bovary he was writing about was just the face for a real type of woman in French society. He proceeds to narrate that story....

Flash back to the early life of Emma (Jennifer Jones) before she met Bovary. She went to a convent school that she hated, and realized she wanted the better things in life. But when she grows up and leaves the school, she winds up in the provincial town of Yonville. One day, the town's new doctor, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin) shows up, and he immediately falls in love with Emma. She must think that a doctor will command a good salary, because she marries Charles.

As you can guess from everything that's happened up to this point, Emma and Charles don't live happily ever after. Charles is very much provincial, and thinks he's not particularly a good doctor, so the family isn't well to do. Emma meets the boy next door, Léon Dupuis (Alf Kjellin who was credited as Christopher Kent because MGM must have thought American audiences wouldn't be able to pronounce Kjellin), who is hoping to become a lawyer, a profession which will definitely be for financially rewarding than what Charles is bringing in. By now, Emma is already starting to rack up debts to keep a better lifestyle than Charles can provide her.

The doctor and Emma get invited to a society party in the nearest big city of Rouen, which is where they meet Boulanger (Louis Jourdan). Emma decides he's going to be her lover now that Dupuis has gone off to Paris and Boulange can dance with her the way that Charles definitely can't. Charles is understandably pissed when he sees what his wife's actions are doing to his reputation, but he's powerless to stop it. Emma goes into more debt in order that she may run off to Italy with Boulanger. But Boulanger plays a trick on Emma in that he leaves beforehand so on the appointed night they're supposed to go off together, he's already jilted her.

And now those debts are about to start catching up with her. L'hereux (Frank Allenby) had been lending Emma the money she needed, but he needs money himself, so he sells off the notes to another man who is going to sue if he can't collect. By this time, Emma and Charles have run into Dupuis again, now in Rouen, so Emma thinks she can go back to him to get him to pay off the debts. She doesn't realize that he's still not a lawyer at all, and there's no way he's going to be able to pay off those debts. What options does Emma have left?

Madame Bovary is an example of the sort of film that it was perfect for MGM to make, the period literary drama. MGM always had high production values and a sort of glitter that didn't work for certain genres of movies, as I've mentioned with Johnny Eager or East Side, West Side in the past. But, here, that sort of gloss is exactly what the movie needs in trying to show Emma's living above her means, especially, for example, with the ball where she meets Boulanger. She's wearing a fabulous gown/shawl combination, and there's something about Jourdan and Jones dancing together that looks surprisingly glamorous.

As for the acting, I'm not terribly enamored of the job that Jennifer Jones did, but I though Van Heflin was quite good as the country doctor who sinks into the bottle as the realization begins to dawn on him that he's got a wife he can't support in the way he wants. The supporting roles are handled well enough, although most of them are also relatively small.

I couldn't find a DVD release of Madame Bovary, which is a big surprise, since it was released by MGM, and as a prestige picture, should have been a prime candidate for either a standalone Warner Archive DVD or as part of a box set. It does, however, seem to be on a bunch of streaming services if you can do the streaming thing.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Shots of heat

I mentioned not too long ago that I just coincidentally happened to watch several aviation-themed movies in quick succession. Among them was Hot Shots!.

There's supposedly a plot here, but since this is a spoof of a bunch of other movies, the plot isn't quite so important. Charlie Sheen, before he went really crazy, plays Topper Harley, a retired Navy fighter pilot. Twenty years earlier, Topper's father Buzz was doing sokme flight training, and his cavalier attitude resulted in him and his co-pilot being forced to ditch the plane. Buzz survived, but not the other guy.

Topper has since gone native, spoofing Dances With Wolves, but the military needs him again. Lt. Cmdr. Block wants him for the testing of a new aircraft. But what Topper doesn't know is that there are powerful forces who want this experiment to fail because they've got a new aircraft of their own. That faction is led by Wilson (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), and they've made certain Topper comes back precisely so this test will fail.

Along the way, Topper meets a bunch of tropes. One is the beautiful lady, Ramada (Valeria Golino), whom he meets doing horse-riding stunts before he finds that she's a psychiatrist and will be his psychiatrist in the military. Of course, they fall in love, and there's a love triangle to boot.

There's also the incompetent admiral who should have been pensioned off long ago, Adm. Benson (Lloyd Bridges), as well as Kent (Cary Elwes), a pilot who it turns out just happens to be the son of the guy that Topper's father got killed those 20 years ago. Eventually, the big test requires all of them to go off to the Mediterranean and destroy an alleged nuclear weapons facility in what is probably supposed to be Libya although I don't think they actually mention the country.

But of course as I said this is a spoof, so the reason to watch it is for both the references to other movies, as well as all of the sight gags. In that respect, Hot Shots! largely works, more so if you remember the things that it's spoofing. The acting isn't much, but of course you don't expect that from Charlie Sheen; Lloyd Bridges is probably best playing what is similar to Robert Stack's character from Airplane!.

Hot Shots! isn't quite as fun in my opinion as I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, but it's definitely worth a watch. It got a sequel, and the two did get a DVD release together which seems to be available on the TCM Shop. Hot Shots is also available on Amazon prime streaming.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Unchanging Sea

I've mentioned a couple of times that I picked up a two-disc set of D.W. Griffith shorts and have been going through the shorts on them rather slowly, any time I don't really want to blog about a feature or want a second post on a day. With that in mind, I recently watched another short from the movie, The Unchanging Sea.

Based on a poem by 19th century British writer Charles Kingsley, the movie tells of three fishermen who go out to sea to earn their living. The main character is married, and spends a little time on the beach with his wife before going out to sea:

Not quite Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr

After the fishermen set out to sea, we get the ominous question:

With a question like that, expect the answer to be "No!"

Eventually, our hero washes ashore somewhere other than where he set out, although it's hard to tell since D.W. Griffith had a paucity of filming locations (IMDb says San Pedro and Santa Monica, California):

Definitely not Burt Lancaster, and probably not even Robert Mitchum as Mr. Allison

A lot of time passes, enough for the fisherman's daughter to grow up (played as an adult by Mary Pickford) and fall in love with a fisherman of her own, which understandably frightens Mom.

Upstaged by a cat, more obviously when the film is running

There's a lot to pack in to a little under 14 minutes, and Griffith does fairly well, considering this is still 1910 and pretty early in his career. I found the story to be a bit tough to follow, although that's because you need to pay attention to the story where I was paying more attention to images to pick out for the blog. You can argue that says something about how advanced narrative could be already in 1910.

There are various prints of The Unchanging Sea on Youtube. The print should be in the public domain, but as always with silent movies, if there's backing music that probably wouldn't be in the public domain and that might cause the video to be pulled from Youtube (something that already happened when I posted a link to Griffith's A Corner in Wheat many years ago).

Thursday Movie Picks #340: 2020 releases

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is "2020 Releases". Now, I have to admit, I did not actually see any movies released in 2020. I don't go to the movie theater all that often, and then in March our idiot governor shut everything down, calling it an Orwellian "pause". Two weeks to flatten the curve my ass. I also don't have enough internet capacity to do streaming video, which I suppose is one of the negatives of living 1000 feet up a hill at the end of a dead-end road and having state forest on the other side of the property.

But I did go to the movies once last year, in January to see 1917, the first time I had been to a movie theater since watching Florence Foster Jenkins back in the summer of 2016. The showing had the usual latter-day advertisements as well as previews, so I'm selecting three movies whose trailers I saw that day.

The Invisible Man. I actually wrote a post on this trailer, since the trailer itself struck me as making the movie out unintentially to be a cross between Blithe Spirit and Sleeping With the Enemy. To me, this had the potential to be really interesting and not bad, or a spectacular misfire. (I laugh towards the end of Sleeping With the Enemy, which I suppose some people out there might find inappropriate.) Apparently it's not a bad movie, but I never got around to seeing it or paying to rent it on DirecTV's movies on demand.

Call of the Wild. The thing I remember most about the trailer is how much of it looked like CGI (ie. all of it), and how much latter-day CGI strikes me as way to sterile and cold, the coldness not being a pun for a movie set in the snows of the Yukon. (Indeed, I found the CGI in 1917 to have the same effect on me.)

Tenet. I'll be damned if I can even remember what the movie was supposed to be about. And I have better recall of some of the trailers I saw before Florence Foster Jenkins. These included La La Land, Tom Hanks as Capt. Sullenberger, and Tom Hanks uncovering another Dan Brown conspiracy in the Vatican, these last two actually being two different movies and not Capt. Sullenberger uncovering the conspiracy. Tenet was supposed to get a 2020 release before governors closed all the movie theaters; I think it eventually did get a release somewhere. Shows you how interested I was in this movie.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Happy movies are all alike

A year ago, I blogged about the 1935 Hollywood version of Anna Karenina which aired as part of a night of literary remakes on TCM. I didn't want to blog about the 1948 British version of Anna Karenina right away, but I see now that it's going to be on TCM tomorrow morning at 10:15 AM as part of another day of Russian literary adaptations, so now would be a good time to blog about it.

If you remember the 1935 version, or ever had to read the book, then you probably know the basic story. Anna Karenina (Vivien Leigh) is married to Andrei (Ralph Richardson), a relatively senior civil servant in the Tsarist government in St. Petersburg. She's got a brother Stepan Oblonsky living in Moscow who is currently having some difficulties with his wife Dolly (Mary Kerridge), so Anna is invited for a visit to try to smooth things out.

On the train to Moscow, Anna meets Countess Vronsky (Helen Haye, no S on the end), mother to a military officer, Count Andrei Vronsky (Kieron Moore) who will be meeting Mom at the station. Anna sees Vronsky, and there's immediately a spark between the two because, after all, young Vronsky is universally described as dashing. And since the Karenins and Vronskys are in the same echelon of society, they're bound to meet each other over and over again at the high-society parties held in Moscow and Petersburg.

With Anna and Vronsky continually running into each other and with Anna not making any attempt to hide what she's feeling about Vronsky, it's no surprise that her husband is going to find out what's going on. Karenin is a relatively austere and highly moral man, at least as regards Tolstoy's warped view of Christiantity. Never mind that the Production Code in Hollywood and the less oppressive British board would insist Anna be punished for her since, Tolstoy demands it too.

Andrei Karenin thinks about filing for divorce, but the Orthodox Church is fairly specific on what grounds are acceptable for breaking what is, after all, supposed to be a sacred union. When he goes looking for letters, Anna decides she's going to run off to Italy with Vronsky to get away for a while, which is even more scandalous, and potentially harmful for Vronsky, whose mother wants him to have a respectable wife. That desire, combined with Karenin's attempts to keep Anna from seeing their son, eventually drives Anna to the eventual end of the story.

I found that both this and the 1935 versions of Anna Karenina had things to recommend them. Being based on a novel by Tolstoy that runs to 800-plus pages, you can't fit everything into a two-hour movie, and that means that the philosopher-farmer character of Levin gets excised. That's not such a bad thing since in the book Levin is another peg for Tolstoy's proselytizing of his beliefs, and drags the book down.

The acting in this version is good, and the technical production values are not quite up to MGM's, even 13 years later. This is particularly noticeable in the rear-projection scenes, which don't seem to have advanced since 1935.

When TCM ran this back at the end of 2019, they put it in a 150-minute slot. IMDb lists a running time of 139 minutes, so 150 minutes would be right. But the movie ended after about 112 minutes. It turns out that for the American release, a bunch of stuff was cut to get the running time down to that 112 minutes, and this is the print TCM ran. This time around, the movie is in a two-hour slot, so I'd assume we're getting the 112-minute print again.

There are a bunch of versions of Anna Karenina available on DVD, but this 1948 version doesn't seem to be in print, at least not legitimately. So you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021


I can't recall the last time Cocoon showed up on FXM. It's been on TCM a couple of times, and I recorded it the last time it showed up. But it's finally on the FXM schedule, having gotten an airing today and on again tomorrow morning at 11:10 AM. So I sat down to watch it and do a review on it here.

Wilford Brimley plays Ben Luckett, who lives at a senior citizens' community together with his wife Mary (Maureen Stapleton) and several of his more recent friends. Ben being a bit younger (in real life Brimley was 20-25 years younger than most of the other retiree co-stars), he can still drive at least for the time being, and is somewhat more independent, as opposed, say, to the Lefkowitzes, Bernie (Jack Gilford) and Rosie (Herta Ware), the latter of whom has some form of dementia.

While a lot of people are doing the standard old-fart group activities that the retirement home puts on, Ben breaks in to the unoccupied home next door, which has a nice pool house that nobody is going to notice him and his friends using. These friends are unmarried Art (Don Ameche), and Joe Finley (Hume Cronyn), married to Alma (Cronyn's real-life wife Jessica Tandy).

Meanwhile, at the marina nearby, Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg) is running a struggling charter boat business. He's lucky to be able to pay off his dockage fees, but other than that, he's had a terrible string of bad luck. So how does all of this come together?

One day, Walter (Brian Dennehy) shows up along with friends including Kitty (Raquel Welch's daughter Tahnee) and Pillsbury (Tyrone Power Jr., although he's really the third or fourth member of the acting family with that name, since "Tyrone Power Sr." was a silent film star and there was one before that). They offer Jack a substantial sum of money in exchange for exclusive use of the boat for the next month. They also show up over at the unoccupied home, looking to rent that for a month, too.

This puts a crimp in the plans of Ben and his friends, who might not be able to use the pool any longer. They decide that they'll still go in when they see Walter and his friends go out on the boat; that way they know they'll have the pool for a while. As for Walter's group, they go scuba diving and bring up what look like large shells that have been lying on the sea floor for who knows how long, bring them on the boat, and then store them in the pool.

This last bit, unsurprisingly, gives the three old men a bit of pause, but they still go into the pool even with these rocks or whatever they are in the pool. They find out after getting out of the pool that they feel much younger -- and hornier -- with all sorts of similar anti-aging effects. Ben had failed the eyesight portion of his license renewal but now passes with flying colors, while Joe finds that his terminal cancer is suddenly in remission.

This should be good news, but there are consequences that aren't entirely positive, such as when Joe starts flirting with other women and it threatens to break up his marriage to Alma, whom he loves dearly.

As for that pool, it turns out that Walter and his friends are aliens, which we first learn when Jack is watching Kitty undress through a small hole in the boat. She doesn't just undress; she takes off her skin, revealing a bright light/pure energy being that obviously throws Jack for a loop. The big surprise is that the aliens don't seem to be afraid of Jack when he finds this out. Nor do they seem afraid of all the old people when Walter finds Ben and his friends in it.

As for those rocks or shells, they're actually the titular cocoons. Walter and his friends had led an expeditionary force from another star system millennia ago, but were forced to leave, putting their friends in these cocoons and depositing them at the bottom of the sea until they could return. (You'd think 10,000 years of geological processes might have done something to the cocoons, but apparently not.) Walter is back to retrieve his friends, and filled the pool with some sort of life force energy that would keep the cocoons and the beings in them alive until they can get back to the spaceship, where they'll live out their immortal days until the heat death of the universe.

But there's a limited amount of life force in that pool, and the energy revitalizing Ben and friends and making them young again ultimately saps all of that energy, making it no longer a fountain of youth and even resulting in the deaths of one of the beings, this being the first death Walter has experienced personally. It's that bit of emotion that leads Walter to accept Ben's sincere apology as well as Ben's offer to help put the remaining cocoons back on the sea floor until Walter can come one more time to retrieve them. In exchange, Walter offers to take Ben and his friends on the spaceship where they can be eternally young and a useful part of some alien society. But will they be willing to leave everything they know behind, and can they even escape?

Cocoon for much of the first half seems like a light silly science fiction fantasy, but with the draining of the life force in the pool it really turns into something thought-provoking and interesting. Of course the idea of not having to grow old and decrepit like Rose is appealing, but most of the time we don't really think about the consequences of an action like that. The material is handled well, and the performances of all these older actors getting another chance at a third act in life are reasonably good, even if Don Ameche's Oscar really seems more like a career award.

Cocoon is absolutely worth a watch, and I was surprised to see that it seems to be out of print on DVD. It does, however, seem to be available on Amazon streaming if you don't have FXM.

Monday, January 11, 2021

My Man and I

I've commented in the past that I think the MGM programmers of the early 1950s are often just as interesting as the prestige movies (usually Freed Unit musicals) the studio was releasing. One with potential that turns out to be a misfire is My Man and I.

Ricardo Montalbán plays Chu Chu Ramirez, a Mexican-born man who has worked itinerant labor in California's agricultural sector together with his Mexican friends, rooming with them now somewhere in the northern half of the state. Chu Chu has become an American citizen and believes so much in the American dream that he wrote a letter to the White House on becoming a citizen and got a very nice form reply, something he insists on telling everybody around him. He's also bought a used set of encyclopedias to try to educate himself and advance his lot in life.

Chu Chu's latest job is working for Ansel Ames (Wendell Corey), using Ames' tractor to clear fields for a month and make the princely sum of $90 plus room and board. Ansel has a wife (Claire Trevor) and doesn't treat her particularly well; Mrs. Ames seems to want to be anywhere but on this god-forsaken farm in the middle of nowhere, especially when the dogs attack her beloved cat. One look at shirtless Chu Chu working the tractor, and you know she's in love with him.

Chu Chu plans to save the money he makes, but one night he goes into town. At a bar there, he meets Nancy (Shelley Winters), an alcoholic who prefers those awful sweet wines. She's got a bar bill she can't pay, and just as Mrs. Ames immediately fell for Chu Chu, so he immediately falls for Nancy, the big difference being that Chu Chu doesn't get to see Nancy' sweaty and topless. Still, he's going to do everything he can to keep seeing her, even after it's clear that her alcoholism is killing her.

Back to the Ameses, Ansel gives Chu Chu a check and, when Chu Chu goes to cash it, he's told that the check is bouncing, which displeases Chu Chu. He goes to see Ansel, who gives him a line about how the check is good and Chu Chu will get his money, while we viewers know that Ansel really hates Mexicans, considers them inferior, and fully plans on stiffing Chu Chu. After Chu Chu signs the check over to one of his friends and the friend tries to cash the rubber check, Chu Chu takes Ansel to small claims court and wins.

At this point, Ansel gets really pissed, to the point that he threatens to shoot Chu Chu. After Chu Chu leaves the property, Ansel and his wife get in an argument with him smacking her around, before the gun accidentally goes off and shoots Ansel in the shoulder. At this point, the movie takes a ridiculous turn, as Ansel somehow is able to convince his wife that they should both lie and say that Chu Chu shot him. Why a wife who's just been beaten and clearly doesn't like her husband should go along with this, I don't know. But they get Chu Chu arrested and put on trial, and even though the legal system is clearly stacked against him, he still has not just faith in the system, but an unrealistically Pollyannaish faith. Of course, this being MGM and with the Production Code still in effect, we know the movie is going to have a happy ending, but still....

The plot turn for the final act is one of the reasons I have a problem with the movie. The other big problem is that the characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs of character types rather than realistically drawn and complex characters. Chu Chu is way too happy all the time; Ansel is too mean and too much of a con artist; Mrs. Ames has no good motivation to stay with her husband; and the Mexicans are given cartoonish accents even if some of them were played by actual Mexicans. (Jack Elam was definitely not Mexican.)

If you want to see how a movie of an interesting time could go wrong, then My Man and I is a good example to watch. But if you want to watch a real quality movie, I could suggest other movies from any of the man actors.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Russia House

Sean Connery and John le Carré both died at the end of last year. They were both involved in the making of the movie The Russia House. It's going to be on various channels in the Cinemax package over the next week, starting with an airing at 8:41 AM tomorrow on ThrillerMax.

Connery plays Barley Blair, a British publisher who at the start of the movie is being interrogated by British intelligence about somebody about whom he knows nothing, Katya Orlova. Barley has been working on good relations with the Soviet Union through the promotion of British literature in the Soviet Union and, at some point, Katya tries to get in touch with him at a trade fair with a letter and a manuscript from a mysterious source named "Dante". That manuscript suggests that the Soviet Union is not prepared at all to fight a nuclear war as their targeting systems really don't work. British intelligence, led by agent Ned (James Fox), wants Barley to go to Moscow and find Katya, and have her get him in touch with Dante, to find out who he is and if the manuscript is accurate.

Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) had apparently met Barley at a dacha party after a previous trade show, one of those things where everybody gets starry-eyed and thinks they can solve all of the world's problems over a few drinks, so he already is at least a bit familiar with the guy. Meanwhile, Ned is trying to teach Barley the basics about how to be a spy, which boils down to you're going to be heard and followed no matter what you try, so do what you can.

Barley meets Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer) and you just know that the two are going to fall in love, but she's also able to get him in touch with Dante again, who turns out to be a physicist named Yakov Savelyev. Dante gives Barley more information, even though he's not so sure he can trust Barley since Dante knows the western intelligence agencies have the first part of the manuscript.

Meanwhile, Ned has been keeping the CIA informed of what's going on, who have assigned Russell (Roy Scheider) and his boss Brady (John Mahoney) to run the American side of the operation. Unfortunately for Ned, and even more unfortunate for Barley, Katya, and Dante, the CIA decides that it wants more control over the operation, in part because they don't want it known that Soviet nuclear capability isn't what it seems. They have to keep their defense contractors happy.

The spy story in The Russia House is a bit convoluted at times and formulaic at others in the conspiracy theory angle (although, as it's turned out in recent years, there certainly is a Permanent State in the intelligence agencies and other branches of government whose interested only coincidentally align with those of the elected officials and the people who elected them; one need only watch an episode of Yes, Minister, or see what the British civil service did to try to sabotage Brexit or what America's Permanent State did over the last four years). The love story angle doesn't exactly inspire confidence, either. But the movie does ultimately work, I think.

Part of this is down to a couple of good supporting performances, from Fox, Mahoney, and Brandauer. But the bigger part is the locations. The Russia House was released in 1990, and was one of the first western films to be shot on location in the Soviet Union, with a lot of locations in Moscow and the then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) being used. Having studied in St. Petersburg for a semester and spending a week on break in Moscow in 1992, it was fun to try to identify the locations, especially in Petersburg. (Our dorm was just down the street from the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel, which is right near the Gulf of Finland.) The production design also reminded me a lot of the interiors I got to see when I was there, although I'm not certain exactly how much of the interior work was done in the Soviet Union and how much was recreated in London.

But the time and milieu in which The Russia House was made is also why the movie has fallen into obscurity. The movie was released in December 1990, just eight months before the abortive coup attempt that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. All the spy agencies utterly missed this, and that whole Cold War went by the wayside (or at least was supposed to). This made the movie dated very quickly after release, a heck of a lot more quickly than most other movies.

The Russia House is available on Prime Video, and unsurprisingly it seems to have fallen out of print on DVD.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Deaths over the past week

I've been busy with work this week and didn't get to watch quite so many movies, so I decided to look up some clips of people who died in the first week of 2021.

Tanya Roberts died on Tuesday at the age of 65, although erroneous reports of her death had come out a day or two before. She's probably best known for playing Stacey Sutton, one of the two main female characters in the Bond movie A View to a Kill, the other one being played by Grace Jones. Here's Roberts with Roger Moore:

Also dying on Tuesday was Barbara Shelley, who appeared in several Hammer horror movies; she was 88. In addition to the Hammer movies, another relatively big role was as George Sanders' wife in the 1960 version of Village of the Damned. Here's the trailer:

Thursday saw the death of Marian Ramsey at the age of 73. She's probably best remembered for playing Laverne Hooks in several of the Police Academy movies. Here she is in a clip from Police Academy 3:

Finally, I should mention British director Michael Apted, who died on Thursday aged 79. He directed Sissy Spacek to an Oscar in Coal Miner's Daughter, directed a couple more Oscar-nominated performances, and a later Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. There's also several later installments in the British Up series, a longitudinal documentary series looking at several British people born in 1956 every 7 years of their lives starting at age 7 in 1963. Here's a TV spot for Coal Miner's Daughter:

Friday, January 8, 2021

Technically, nobody's forcing you to stay happy

In the last week or two, I've inadvertently watched several movies which have aviation as a theme, as we saw with Conquest of the Air which I recommended at the beginning the week. Recently, I popped in a DVD from a Universal James Stewart box set and watched You Gotta Stay Happy, which I have to admit was a new-to-me title when I first saw the set on Amazon.

Stewart plays Marvin Payne, a cargo pilot who has just flown into New York and shows up at a hotel looking for a friend of his who is able to get a cheap rate on one of the rooms because Payne always leaves well before checkout time. Meanwhile, also showing up at the hotel is Dee Dee Dillwood (Joan Fontaine). She's one of those flighty heiress types who were common in screwball comedies of the 1930s, but this movie was released in 1948. She's finally agreed to get married to lawyer Henry (Willard Parker), but she doesn't really want to do it. So she runs out of the bridal suite and into... the suite that Payne has for the night.

Dee Dee obviously doesn't want Payne to know the truth of what's going on, and doesn't want to get caught by Henry either, so she makes Payne's life a bit of a living hell by delaying him from getting out of the room. She's like to go west like Payne is, but of course Payne is running a cargo airline, and they're not supposed to take paying passengers. So Dee Dee winds up becoming technically an employee of the company until she can get off in Chicago.

Payne co-owns the company with "Bullets" Baker (Eddie Albert), who at this point in his career was playing sort of the lighter and not quite so oily Jack Carson types. He's the co-pilot for the flight, and in order to make a little extra money, he too takes on a couple of illicit passengers. There's a newlywed couple (Marcy McGuire and Arthur Walsh), and an embezzler (Porter Hall) who had a blonde secretary. Dee Dee is a blonde, too, although I'm giving a bit away, not that she's an embezzler. Rounding out the cargo is a coffin with a dead body that needs to be at its funeral in Los Angeles by a certain time, and a cigar-smoking chimpanzee.

If you've seen any of the 1930s screwball comedies, you can figure out much of what happens well before it does. Dee Dee doesn't stay in Chicago, getting back on the plane instead, and then further west the plane has to make an emergency landing, where everybody is forced to spend a night on a farm owned by Mr. Racknell (Percy Kilbride). Payne and Dee Dee find out that night that they might just be in love. Since they're the two leads, we sort of expect them to get together in the final reel, but how is that going to happen.

You Gotta Stay Happy is modest stuff for both Stewart and Fontaine. Not that it's terrible; it's more that the material is old-fashioned and uninventive. Both players try their hardest and the movie is entertaining enough for one watch, but it's also the sort of thing that's forgettable after you've watched it. I'm glad it's on the box set, but I don't think it's something I'd pick up as a standalone unless it was at bargain bin prices.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks #339: Oscar Winners Edition: Best Picture

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. Several months in 2021 have on the first Thursday have Oscar-winning movies as the theme, with a different category being selected each month. For the first of these themes, it's not surprising to pick the biggest Oscar of them all, the Best Picture. With that in mind, I decided to pick three early winners that get maligned somewhat unfairly in my view:

The Broadway Melody (1929). Anita Page and Bessie Love play a pair of sisters who go to New York to make it big on Broadway. Eventually one does, but there's also the requisite love triangle. Talkies were still relatively new, and musicals were incredibly creaky until Busby Berkeley came along. But to be fair, The Broadway Melody helped create a lot of the tropes we know today rather than repeating them. And although there was no official nomination ceremonies, the Academy's records of movies under consideration doesn't exactly have a strong lineup up against The Broadway Melody.

Cimarron (1931). Richard Dix plays Yancey Cravat, who stakes a claim in the Oklahoma land rush of 1989, with his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) following. He has wanderlust and goes off in search of more adventures, leaving Sabra to grow up with the state over the next 40 years. Cimarron is often panned for Dix's performance, but it's not that bad and the opening land rush scene is absolutely worth a watch. Having said that, Cimarron probably should have lost to The Front Page of the movies nominated.

Cavalcade (1933). An upper-class couple (Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook) experience the first 33 years of 20th century Britain, as do a lower-class couple (Una O'Connor and Herbert Mundin). Based on a play by Noël Coward, it's easy to see why the scale of the movie would appeal to the Academy, and there are parts of it that are pretty good. But it was released in 1933, a year that had some extremely strong competition, and the decidedly old-fashioned production leads a lot of people to look at Cavalcade as a lesser movie. Of the ten nominees, I think I'd vote for 42nd Street.