Weekly Mishmash: March 28-April 3
Forgive me, I’m still feeling a bit woozy from the mild earthquake in Baja California this afternoon. The mishmash is bursting with movies this week, but I’ll have to be brief.
Big Night (1996). Another one of those critically acclaimed ’90s indies that I haven’t seen ’til now. On a vague promise that Louis Prima would visit his failing restaurant, Stanley Tucci arranges with his chef brother Tony Shalhoub to prepare a feast to end all feasts. A sweet, slice-of-life movie that is specifically tuned to actors and wresting good performances from its diverse cast (unsurprising, since Tucci directed along with Campell Scott, who also appears onscreen as a smarmy auto salesman). This film didn’t exactly bowl me over, with several talky and seemingly improvised scenes that didn’t add much to the proceedings, but it does have a fabulous sense of time and place. An actor who definitely doesn’t get enough leading roles, Tucci delivers in a role that speaks more of following one’s own standards of excellence than anything else.
Escape to Paradise (1939). Last night, we had a party with our “50 cheesy old comedies on 12 DVDs” set. On the menu was this cruddy little musical, a south-of-the-border vehicle for an unappealing Wayne Newton-esque juvenille singer named Bobby Breen. Set in a South American tourist town, Breen plays a perky kid who helps out an American guy wanting to — do you really need to know this, now? We only watched it for Joyce Compton, somewhat wasted in a supporting role that sets her character up as little more than a dumb stooge. Should you have an hour to kill, the film is viewable online at Archive.org.
Perfect Strangers (1950). Catch any Ginger Rogers flicks in Turner Classic Movies‘ month-long salute last month? This Warner Bros. courtroom melodrama was one of the few on the schedule that I’d never heard of, so I gave it a curious look. In it, Ginger plays a Los Angeles woman who is too busy with personal business separating from her husband to accept jury duty. She is recruited anyhow, and ends up falling for fellow jurist Dennis Morgan during deliberations on a complex murder trial. Although I was expecting this to be either a predictable romance or a predictable courtroom drama, it actually ended up being quite the absorbing film with a sharply written and observant script. The film mostly centers on the interpersonal squabblings among the film’s diverse jurors (which includes Thelma Ritter at her snarky early best — and the voice of Fred Flintstone, Alan Reed!). The Rogers/Morgan romantic subplot slightly detracts from a film that is essentially 12 Angry Men Lite. If only for the priceless scene of Rogers exiting a trolley car and strolling in front of the gorgeous 1950 vista of L.A. City hall, this is one underrated goodie worth seeking out.
Red Cliff (2008). An epic Chinese battle, 220 a.d. style, with armadas of CGI ships and one very talented white dove. This Foreign Language Oscar nominee was directed by John Woo and stars one of our favorites, Tony Leung. Although the film had several absorbing scenes, overall it came across as too ponderous (we watched the nearly three hour cut), confusing and so intent on showing how big everything is that it lost sight of its main mission. China is a culture that venerates its own history, and it probably resonates better with them. Americans, however, must beware.
Superhero Movie (2008). Here’s irony: we recently had a free weekend of several Showtime channels, but the only films that piqued our interest were Superhero Movie and that poppin’ and lockin’ masterpiece, Breakin’ (look out for that on the 11th). This movie was stupid and at times painful with its desperate-to-please ambiance, but it was fun enough and even had several laugh out loud moments. Best casting award goes to Leslie Nielsen and Marion Ross as the main teen-turned super hero’s elderly uncle and aunt (is the fact that both actors are old enough to be his great-grandparents part of the comedy?).
Up in the Air (2009). You already know about this one by now. Good, intelligent and wryly observant, pretty much what I expected. I thought Clooney was good, Anna Kendrick was a pleasant surprise and I have no idea why Vera Farmiga got an Oscar nom. Interesting to note that Clooney’s character and motivations mirror Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day.
Upperworld (1933). My other Ginger Rogers on TCM gleaning, this is a tasty and surprisingly cynical pre-Code potboiler starring Warren William as a smooth-talking industrialist (did he play anything else?). William is a successful mogul stuck in a rut with a shallow socialite of a wife (Mary Astor) and a bratty kid (Dickie Moore) whose life is turned around when he meets comely showgirl Rogers. The two have a chaste, flirtatious relationship at first, but things turn ugly when blackmail and eventually murder enter the picture. This is a smoothly made, beautifully photographed film with an excellent cast. Rogers is at her cherubic best here playing an unpretentious girl who is oddly the only likable character in the entire film. It comes as a shock when (spoiler alert) she gets shot and dies, then the film quickly wraps up in a hasty, happy ending. Bizarre, and worth a look.
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