Weekly Mishmash: April 25-May 1
Blast of Silence (1961). This was such an interesting find. Blast of Silence is a New York-set crime thriller written by and starring Allen Baron — an early example of indie shoestring filmmaking. Baron was not the first choice for the lead (Peter Falk was), but he does have a certain sulky presence as cynical hit man Frank Bono. The film is somewhat stilted and meandering, but Baron really conveys the banality of Bono’s existence in several fascinating shots in which he’s seen pacing the streets of a grimy ’61 Manhattan at Christmas time. The best touch was hiring an uncredited Lionel Stander (what a voice!) to do the narration. This omniscient, blasé voice running throughout becomes the central motif of the film, and it elevates Blast from routine late noir to a cinematic art piece. Criterion’s DVD also includes a neat piece in which Baron revisits the film’s NYC locales thirty years later.
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Another Best Picture Oscar winner that I hadn’t seen before. I was expecting Elia Kazan’s filming of the then-controversial Laura Z. Hobson novel to be dated and ponderous, but the film adroitly deals with the root of prejudice in a way that resonates even today. In the film, Gregory Peck plays a magazine journalist who is assigned a hot story on anti-Semitism. The gentile Peck doesn’t know how to go about reporting on this, until he hits upon the idea of going undercover as a Jew (several scenes after the audience has figured it out – not a smart cookie, this Peck guy). One could say this film is wishy-washy and comes from a “bleeding heart liberal” point of view, but it’s also beautifully directed and boasts top-notch acting from a committed cast (including Dorothy McGuire, Ann Revere, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, June Havoc and Dean Stockwell). I thought it was swell and deservedly won Best Picture. I even wish that McGuire, who does wonders with a tricky role, had nabbed the Best Actress award that year. Instead the prize went to Loretta Young, the Sandra Bullock of 1947. Can’t win them all, I suppose.
Outrage (2009). Fantastic, utterly gripping documentary on closeted Republican politicians who have long track records of rejecting pro-gay and lesbian legislation. Normally I have a problem with the idea of outing celebrities or elected officials. If they want to keep their private lives private, that’s fine. I do take exception for those whose actions are downright hypocritical, however, and director/writer Kirby Dick unearths a lot of eye-popping stuff in laudably measured, non-exploitative tone. It’s astonishing the kind of gall people like Larry Craig and Charlie Crist have, courting right-wing Bible thumpers while trolling the internet for m2m sex. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! You have got to see this.
The Secret of Kells (2009). This was our special “day out at the movies” yesterday — I’ve been wanting to see the Irish/Belgian production Secret of Kells since it received a nomination for Best Animated Feature last January. Like most people, I thought “what is this?” I was enchanted by the exquisite visual design of this medieval adventure, then delighted when the film finally showed up at a local theater. The venue was located 20 miles away from us, but by gum we were gonna see it. This is an animated rendition of the origin of the Book of Kells, a story that might be more accessible to those who know Irish folklore but intriguing all the same. Every frame is like a gorgeous work of art — one equally inspired by Celtic illuminated manuscripts, Gustave Klimt, and classic Disney. I loved the stylized character design (that cat!) and the beautiful watercolor subtlety of the backgrounds. The film really has an exquisite eye for nature and the changing seasons — even the snowflakes are Celtic. I might even have to catch it again when it lands on DVD.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings — I Learned the Hard Way. Good, gritty retro-soul album was my token new music purchase for the quarter. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings make every effort to mimic old soul records from circa 1970, with enough class and modern sensibility to make it considerably better than mere oldies revue pastiche. It’s a pretty tasty, tuneful record with the Delfonics shout out “The Game Gets Old” being the standout. Ms. Jones herself is a great, assured vocalist, but what stands out to my ears is how the Dap-Kings sound exactly like Al Green’s backup musicians from the early ’70s. Short of a time-traveling Delorian, how exactly did they do that?
Song of Russia (1944). Joy. Robert Taylor, the Senator Larry Craig of classic moviedom, was TCM’s star of the month for April. That didn’t really appeal to me that much, but I did manage to TiFaux one of his vehicles that has always held a perverse fascination: the WWII romance Song of Russia. The film was infamous — not so much for its obvious propaganda or its dippy storyline involving a dashing American conductor and the comely Russian swain he falls for — but for being one of the igniting forces behind the House of Un-American Activity’s investigation of alleged Communists in Hollywood. I won’t get into that particular angle, but the film itself was moderately entertaining hokum, ludicrously portraying the Russian people as simple farm folk who’d find an ordinary wristwatch dazzling. I actually enjoyed certain elements here — the classical soundtrack, the luminous b&w cinematography, and most of all Susan Peters as Taylor’s love interest. Peters’ life was tragically cut short when a hunting accident left her paralyzed; this film gives us a small peek into what could have been.