The Circus Queen Murder (1933). I gave this Columbia ‘B’ a shot when it received an unusual prime time showing on a recent Turner Classic Movies night devoted to circus movies. Dapper Adolphe Menjou stars as Thatcher Colt, big city detective who takes a vacation in upstate New York. He and his secretary (the strangely alluring Ruthelma Stevens) are there to relax, but instead they find themselves involved in the shady dealings of a traveling circus with quarreling lovers, and a mysterious tribe of cannibals, and (you guessed it) murder. This is an efficiently made, very watchable little flick somewhat spoiled by the lack of mystery throughout. The murder happens too late in the film, and since the killer’s identity is plainly telegraphed early on there isn’t much suspense, either. Despite that, I enjoyed watching this not only for the cast (apparently this was one of two Thatcher Colt/Adolphe Menjou flicks), but for the many similarities between this and Freaks. Although this film is lighthearted mystery and Freaks is terrifying horror, it appears as if Greta Nissen’s trapeze artist is patterned after Olga Baclanova’s character in the earlier film. The filmmakers also included a group of vaguely creepy cannibals which call to mind the assorted Freaks freaks. Coincidence or not, the circus backdrop is vividly portrayed and adds some much needed depth to the film.
In Search of the Castaways (1962). Another week, another live action Disney adventure! In Search of the Castaways stars winsome Hayley Mills as a pre-teen who comes across a bottled message sent by her father, a shipping merchant previously thought to be killed at sea. Teaming with her brother, a ship’s captain and his son, and the French fisherman (Maurice Chevalier) who found the bottle, she goes on a journey that takes the troupe through snowy mountains, flash floods, volcanoes and a menacing band of cannibals (two cannibal movies in one week!). Fun in its own way but it does rank as one of the lesser Disney live action flicks, with scenes that stretch the notions of credibility and provoke the image of Jules Verne spinning in his grave. If the idea of watching people maneuver a giant boulder down a snowy canyon like some sort of king-sized toboggan strikes your fancy, this is the flick for you.
Inception (2010). Christopher and I took a day off on Friday to do a double feature at the local cracker box cinema; the trippy Inception was one of them. You oughta know by now it’s about Leo DiCaprio and pals invading another man’s dreams in an Oceans 11 meets Mission: Impossible type scenario. I thought it was a fun way to spend two and a half hours. I found myself lost in the film and admiring (if not exactly being wowed by) Christopher Nolan’s knack for audience-friendly yet cerebral entertainment; a very similar reaction that befell Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The story gets very dense at times, introducing characters whose function I couldn’t figure out (Ken Watanabe?). Although the four dream states never tripped me up, I have to admit to being disappointed that they all have a similar “action movie set piece” look that doesn’t bear any semblance to any dream I’ve ever had. The special effects are very cool, however. Just be prepared for many scenes of people drinking, rain-soaked, underwater, etc. — this is a film that seems specifically engineered for strategically placed bathroom breaks.
The Paris Sisters — Sing Everything Under the Sun!!!. The Paris Sisters were a girl trio best known for the moony 1961 hit “I Love How You Love Me.” Despite its having four flop singles, their 1967 LP Sing Everything Under the Sun!!! was considered a sought-after cult item for Girl Group collectors until it finally got a CD reissue in the mid-2000s; I got to check it out on eMusic. This short, sweet gem of an album is a good showcase for the sultry voice of Priscilla Paris (who also wrote four of its ten tracks). Producers Jack Nitzsche and Jimmy Bowen built a consistent sound for the album that lies halfway between Phil Spector and easygoing mid-’60s “beach” music, a mood that sometimes detours in a nicely atmospheric direction (a dirge-like take on “It’s My Party,” for example) which likely influenced David Lynch and Julee Cruise some 20 years later. Priscilla Paris has an interesting, somewhat sleepy sounding voice, but the true highlight of this album comes when she pulls out an unexpectedly emotional performance on “See That Boy.” In just under 2-1/2 minutes, here is the epitome of why I dig obscure ’60s music. I’m positive that in an alternate universe somewhere it’s a huge, huge hit.
They Drive By Night (1940). Re-watched this after adding the DVD to my efforts to collect the films of Joyce Compton. Joyce appears briefly in the film’s second half as the ditsy girlfriend of one of the film’s supporting characters; in my totally biased opinion she holds her own opposite George Raft, Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart. Actually, the first (non-Joyce) half of this film is the kind of cracklin’ working class drama that Warner Bros. did impeccably during this time. It follows truckers Raft and Bogart as they deal with punishing hours and low pay hauling produce on all-night drives, with Sheridan adding a salty cynicism as a waitress whom Raft takes a shine to. It’s such a cool, supremely exciting movie (even the normally cardboard Raft does a great job), that it’s a bit of a disappointment when the film shifts gears to shrill murder melodrama with a hysterically overacting Ida Lupino. That plot development is still interesting in a campy way, but it detracts from what would have otherwise been a perfect, gritty film. Although I normally adore Ida Lupino (see The Hard Way or The Man I Love), she’s too much here; it’s hard to believe that critics of the day heaped praise on her performance.
A Town Called Panic (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010). Animated films which both deal, directly or not, with our relationship with toys and play objects. A Town Called Panic is an inventive, generally successful French-Belgian stop motion film that weaves a wacky story out of cheap plastic playthings a la army men, farm sets, and cowboys and indians. The cowboy and indian in this instance are two boys who live in a house under the parentage of a stern horse. Although I won’t go into the plot details, it involves an underwater city, a giant mechanical penguin, and lots of weirdly mismatched farm animals. The absurdist humor throughout actually reflects the way real children play with toys, independent of what they were made for (I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t use army men to do army battles). This film is too long by a good half hour, but I found it totally charming and bizarre in ways that market-tested Hollywood flicks could never touch. Hollywood flicks excepting those from the mighty Pixar, which brings me to Toy Story 3. What a fabulous way to close out the tale of Andy, Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang! This film was much more emotionally resonant — and darker — than I ever expected. I appreciated the level of detail that they put in every scene, and the additional characters were so wonderful it almost made me forget the regrettable absence of Bo Peep and that penguin squeaky toy. Probably the most poignant addition is the creep inducing lazy-eyed baby, a character that is set up as a villain but somehow ends up being more sympathetic than the nominal leads. I think it’s because the baby is presented as a realistic child with adorable cooing sounds and infantile reactions, giving the viewer the uncomfortable notion that abandoned baby doll = real abandoned baby. Speaking of which, the film’s climax goes to intense, emotional places even previous Pixar efforts like Up didn’t venture. The much spoken-of final scene was a beautifully done and affecting bit of closure, even though it failed to bring a single tear in me (just raised a lump in my throat) — probably since it went on too long. Yeah, I’m a scrooge. Despite that minor disappointment, this gets a solid ‘A’.