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Weekly Mishmash: August 15-21

Seven flicks in seven days — the dog days of summer are upon us.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger (2008). Interesting documentary told in a Morgan Spurlock-like fashion, about the lure of steroids in sports and entertainment. Filmmaker Chris Bell starts it off as a fairly straightforward autobiographical tale of how his childhood obsession with Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bulked-up action stars affected him and his two equally brawny brothers. The siblings have a healthy competitive spirit in their teen years, but as they enter adulthood the constant need to be “bigger, faster, stronger” and the hollow pursuit of the fame that goes with it leads them off into different paths. Using a healthy dose of film and TV footage and animated graphics, Bell examines the steroid debate in a funny, even-handed way. Although I don’t agree with the film’s stance that the threat of steroids and other performance enhancers are overblown, it’s Bell’s ambivalence toward the subject and the dynamic he shares with his family that really shines through. The film’s greater subject is that success in America is an illusion, a point that comes through glaringly when George W. Bush is shown giving one of his hackneyed “anyone can make it” speeches while file footage of his dad plays. Overall, the film is perhaps a bit sprawling and overlong, but very thought provoking and worth a look.
Dead Snow (2009). Another “Norwegian students trapped in the wilderness with a group of undead Nazis” movie. Christopher rented this after hearing Michael Moore recommend it on NPR. Although Moore praised it for being a top notch scarefest, the film is more of a comedy with horror elements a la Shaun of the Dead or the Scream movies. It follows a group of med students who are borrowing a friend’s cabin to have a snowy getaway, only to find that mysterious beings are hounding them at night. Eventually it’s discovered that the area was once a Nazi hideout with undead officers still patrolling the area looking for fresh human flesh to munch on. It is ludicrous, with characters doing all sorts of stupid things, but the cast was very appealing (I was sorry to see many of them offed so early) and the undead creatures are suitably frightening. Fair warning: towards the end, the film gets very bloody and gross. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
poster_divorceeThe Divorcee (1930). God help me, I’ve always like Norma Shearer. Despite the lady’s crossed eyes and fluttery demeanor, there’s something about her that keeps me coming back for more. I’ve surprisingly never seen Shearer in her Academy Award winning pre-Code melodrama The Divorcee. When it popped up on the TCM’s Summer Under the Stars schedule as part of an all Shearer day, I decided to finally see if her performance holds up. In short, it does. Shearer seems to relish playing a free-spirited “modern” woman who marries beau Chester Morris, only to find that when it comes to marital infidelity the old fashioned double standard still holds true. Although the settings are dated, that central theme actually keeps the film from becoming a relic of the times. Opening with a wild party, the film is unusually brisk for an early talkie. Shearer gets good support from Morris and Robert Montgomery (although Conrad Nagel as Norma’s ex-flame is a bit dull). Shearer from this period still seems somewhat flighty to me (I prefer the Marie Antoinette/The Women era), but her big tell-off speech to Morris is still lively and potent as ever. The fashions and various pre-Code techniques are a lot of fun, too.
The Hearst and Davies Affair (1985). Always on the lookout for intriguing stuff to watch on the basic satellite schedule, I stuck this mid-’80s made for TV biopic on the DVR when it bizarrely showed up on the Reelz channel schedule. I mean, what’s the appeal to Joe Channel Surfer of Robert Mitchum and Viginia Madsen playing William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies? This film was long, badly acted and directed in an unexceptional TV style, but it kept me intrigued if only for the film’s lush and historically accurate period details (parts were even filmed in Hearst Castle). The biggest problem with this film is that it covers too much territory in too short a time, going from when the pair first meet circa 1912 all the way through Hearst’s bankruptcy in the late ’30s. Mitchum was decent enough, more he-man than the actual Hearst. There are shots when Madsen looks eerily similar to the young Marion Davies, despite the actress lacking the earthiness of the real Davies. She’s also too thin and pretty for the film’s later scenes, looking more like a Jean Harlow clone at a time when Davies was getting plump and matronly from heavy drinking. I’m nitpicking too much, but the film was diverting in an undemanding “retro Dynasty” sorta way.
The Sting (1973). Another effort in catching up with unseen Best Pictures of the past, The Sting nabbed the big prize in a year when the superior Exorcist and American Graffiti were also up for grabs. This was a well-made genre picture with Paul Newman and Robert Redford at their charismatic best as a pair of sophisticated grifters who undergo an insanely detailed plan to bilk a millionaire. Very enjoyable, even if the direction seemed a bit pat and the film’s flat lighting gives it an unfortunate TV movie look. The production design is pretty cool, with snazzy costuming and just about every shade of brown effectively conveying a Depression-era Chicago. I also thought the casting was excellent with some nifty work from Robert Shaw, Harold Gould, Ray Walston and Eileen Brennan. As fun as it was, it’s not a film that I’d eagerly revisit any time soon. It’s no Exorcist or American Graffiti, that’s for sure.
poster_tarnishedangelsThe Tarnished Angels (1957). Tawdry but fascinating Douglas Sirk melodrama which re-teams the main actors from the better-known (but not as enjoyable) Written on the Wind. Based on a William Faulkner story, this film tracks a trio of Depression era barnstorming pilots. Manly Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone are unhappily married, with a child that Malone may or may not have had with their haggard mechanic (Jack Carson). Things get stirred up when Malone falls for roving reporter Rock Hudson. Since I found Written on the Wind the campiest and dumbest of Sirk’s movies, I arrived at this one with trepidation. This one also has camp to spare, but at least the setting and story are more involving and there are some good-to-decent performances amongst the hokum. Sirk adds a lot of his unique touches to this film, including his usual mirror images and having extras appear wearing odd, creepy masks. Touches like that add to the film’s strange voyeuristic vibe, even if the central theme was more satisfyingly explored in later stuff like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Malone’s va-va-voom bullet bras and come-hither hairstyle are far from ’30s, however. The barnstorming scenes themselves, with aircraft dangerously maneuvering around pylons, are very well done. Rock Hudson’s climactic speech, however passionately played by the actor, is a histrionic letdown. On the Sirk-O-Meter, this lies at the same level as Magnificent Obsession but well below All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life.
Wings for the Eagle (1942). Rather cruddy wartime propaganda-cum-domestic melodrama played on Ann Sheridan day during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars (check out their beautiful site, by the way). Sheridan, Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan headline as star-crossed lovers who are also vying for jobs at the Lockheed aircraft plant in Burbank, California. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film are the scenes actually filmed at Lockheed with workers furiously aiming to build as many bombers as possible. Those shots are fascinating, but in between we must suffer through the most hokey and predictable plot known to man. The film is directed by Lloyd Bacon in a shrill way with the actors all speaking a decibel or two louder than normal, undoubtedly trying to compete with the movie’s bombastic score. Normally I like all three lead actors, but the characters they play here are so annoying you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with them, much less 90 minutes. The supporting cast is generally filled with predictable stock types, the exception being a pint-sized worker played with gusto by Billy Gilbert (cruelly billed as “Midget” in the credits). This movie may have been onto something had it starred Gilbert instead of Sheridan et al.

3 Thoughts on “Weekly Mishmash: August 15-21

  1. Brad In Worcester on August 22, 2010 at 11:36 pm said:

    I fervently agree with you about the hideous lighting in “The Sting”– when I saw it again for the first time since it came out in ’73 all I could mutter was, “What was their D.O.P. smoking back then? The whole thing was shot brighter than a Sears commercial!”.
    (Which is why my poor wife doesn’t like watching movies with me.)
    Then I rooted around the IMdB a little and it turns out the prime suspect was Robert Surtees, the guy who mucked up “The Great Waldo Pepper” , “The Turning Point” and Babs Steisand’s remake of “A Star Is Born”.
    Yet just a couple of years previous ol’ Man Surtees also lensed “The Last Picture Show” and “Summer of ’42”, two sumptuous explorations in black and white for the former and layered sepia tones for the latter.
    This guy was all over the place.
    Final Fun Fact: Luther, Redford’s grifter friend whose death sets the plot rolling in “Sting” was none other than James Earl Jones DAD, Robert Earl Jones. The timbre of his voice was the tell…

  2. The Last Picture Show has some gorgeously shot outdoor scenes, but I remember that the interiors from that movie have the same flat, overlit look as The Sting — very interesting observation, Brad! I didn’t know about James Earl Jones’ dad, either.

  3. Brad In Worcester on August 23, 2010 at 6:33 pm said:

    Department Of Beating A Dead Horse:
    Regarding “Last Picture Show”—didja ever see Coppola’s “Rumblefish”?
    Love that Midwestern Noir– the scenes in the Snack Bar/Pool Joint (run by Tom Waits’ character) are really finely textured and achingly gritty.
    That was Steve Burum’s work, who did the moooody “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and several epis of the original “Land of the Lost” back in ’74…
    Hooray for IMdB!
    Hooray for useless culturally peripheral memories!

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