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Weekly Mishmash: January 11-17

Allegro Non Troppo (1977). Like Fantasia, only with an adult, European sensibility (boobies!) and a funky ’70s aesthetic. Animation in a wide variety of styles is bridged with live action scenes with a dictatorial conductor, a harried animator and an orchestra full of old biddies. These black and white scenes are silly and overplayed, but I enjoyed the lack of pretension in these and the animated segments. The real treasure here is Bruno Bozzetto’s whimsical animation and the eye-popping background paintings. My favorite segment is Valse Triste, a Little Match Girl-type story starring a pathetic stray kitty:

Downstairs (1932). John Gilbert was a huge silent star, and the early talkie melodrama Downstairs represented a last gasp for his career. Gilbert himself wrote the story for this one, an intrigue-filled yarn revolving around a European upper class household and its servants in a way that anticipates stuff like Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park. Fascinating and beautifully acted (Gilbert is great as the heel chauffeur), I actually think it’s an undiscovered gem amongst movies from this period. It’s interesting seeing Olga Baclanova in a non-Freaks role, and the ethereal Virginia Bruce has one excellent rant in which she defends her sexual freedom to her new husband (Paul Lukas). No wonder that scene was used in the recent documentary on pre-Code women, although in this context one can appreciate it better. The movie is smoothly directed and fast paced, unusual for this early talkie era. It’s too bad Mr. Gilbert became a self-pitying alcoholic and died a few years later.
Pretty Poison (1968). I first heard about this overlooked dark comedy in Danny Peary‘s seminal book Cult Movies. Although I wouldn’t label it a Cult Classic, the film is bolstered by its frankness and the enthusiasm of the two lead actors. In Norman Bates mode, Anthony Perkins plays a damaged former criminal who takes shelter in a small town. Soon he befriends high school girl Tuesday Weld, a deceptively innocent young lady who proves to be even more screwy in the head than Perkins ever imagined. This film suffers from weirdly looped dialogue and a bland, made-for-TV look, but the story kept me intrigued all the way through (certainly the second half improves over the first). Weld and Perkins give their all and elevate an otherwise routine film into something worth watching.
Susan Slade (1961). One thing I gleaned from this camp-ola melodrama — Connie Stevens should have stuck to TV. She was cute as a button in this pre-nosejob incarnation, sure, but also so out of depth it makes watching this a sometimes painful experience. Coming off like a combination of Tippi Hedren and a Skipper doll, Stevens plays an unwed teenage mother who must choose between two guys who aren’t worthy of her. Lloyd Nolan and Dorothy McGuire are both good as her parents, and Troy Donahue glowers competently enough as the bad stable boy who isn’t quite “bad” enough to steal Connie’s heart. This movie was actually pretty well-done at times, bolstered by beautiful photography and a particularly droolworthy home located on the bluffs of Monterey, California. The house is decorated in high Asian chic — that is until busybody Natalie Shaefer redecorates the whole place in Early American Puke. The film plays itself out in very predictable fashion, but stick around for the burning baby — totally worth it.
Swing Shift Maisie (1943). TCM had a morning of Maisie movies this week; I recorded films #2 (Congo Maisie) and #7 (this one) out of sheer curiosity. Based on Swing Shift, these were little more than program-filling vehicles for the effervescent charm of Ann Southern. Here, her brassy showgirl Maisie takes a job at an aircraft plant while wooing a hunky airman (James Craig, sigh) and keeping her bitchy roommate (Jean Rogers) at bay. Movies like this reveal a lot of interesting stuff about the period they were made in, but I couldn’t take the script’s stupid view of women as harpies who are guided by their silly, selfish emotions and little else. It drove me up a wall!
Syriana (2005). I don’t have much to add here except that this was a good, tough film — at times hard to follow, but the cast underplays nicely and the complicated storyline threads itself out satisfyingly in the end. Preaching to the choir, it didn’t change my mind much about why the U.S. government has to involve itself in things it shouldn’t. The film does reflect the Bush-era zeitgeist so well that it makes me wonder how it will be perceived later on. Future classic or not? Time will decide.

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