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Weekly Mishmash I: December 12-18

dvd_earthiiEarth II (1971). Our first sampling of the made-to-order DVDs from Warner Archive (we bought a bundle in the site’s 5-for-$50 Black Friday sale). This quasi-2001 TV movie was Christopher’s choice, since he fondly remembered viewing it as a kid. In the film, Earthlings have set up a utopian space colony in which wars/conflicts don’t exist and every issue is voted on amongst its citizens via interactive televised discussions. When a Chinese satellite containing a nuclear bomb drifts into their orbit, the people of Earth II risk everything – including the onset of World War III – to diffuse it. This film was interesting, if poky paced and talky. I enjoyed watching it if only to see how the filmmakers adapted the style of 2001: A Space Odyssey (its obvious influence) within a made-for-TV milieu. For criminy’s sake, the cast is even headed by 2001 star Gary Lockwood! Other players include Mariette Hartley in her pre-Kodak commercial phase, Lew Ayres, Gary Merrill (sporting a bad comb-over) and even Benson‘s lovable housekeeper, Inga Swensen. Too plodding to be a complete success, but the production design is nice and Lalo Schifrin’s grand scoring gives the film some needed gravity, so to speak. Warner’s DVD edition has a crisp, nicely presented picture.
Going My Way (1943). Another notch in my effort to watch all the Best Picture Oscar Winners, this Bing Crosby/Barry Fitzgerald feel-good opus pushed all the right buttons for a war-weary public in ’43, but does it hold up today? I’d say no. The picture meanders and contains a few too many subplots, but Crosby and Fitzgerald are both charming and they are matched by an attractive supporting cast which includes Warner Bros. fave Frank McHugh, pretty opera star Risë Stevens (who is apparently still with us, bless her heart) and Our Gang‘s Alfalfa, Carl Switzer. I know, hating on something like Going My Way is like spitting on your mother, but I’ll say it — this was far from being a worthy Best Picture Oscar winner. Overwhelming mawkishness aside, part of my resistance to this film lies in how Crosby’s very type (the earnest Man of the Cloth who can also hang with the homeboys) has become such a boring cliché. The casting is good and there are several sweet musical numbers, but overall I found it very blah and non-compelling (not to mention long, long, long). Double Indemnity so should have won that year!
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). Actress Sally Hawkins got good notices (even a Golden Globe nomination, for what it’s worth) for this Mike Leigh film a few years back. Good enough reasons for me to check it out, but the film was a disappointment. The slight plot concerns Hawkins’ guileless schoolteacher as her cheery disposition either enlightens or infuriates those around her. A British Pollyanna, or perhaps the female Forrest Gump? Hawkins is at first very engaging, with a casual manner that is very unusual to behold. As the film goes along and we witness her character giggling through driving lessons, a tango class, and otherwise serious repartee with her siblings, however, the woman becomes simply annoying. Having not watched many Mike Leigh films (I vaguely remember seeing 1991’s Life Is Sweet and being similarly underwhelmed), this trifle does absolutely nothing to arouse my curiosity.
The Medicine Man (1930). Shoddily made comedy-drama produced by the z-grade Tiffany studio is notable for being the first starring vehicle for Jack Benny. Previously known as the funnyman emcee of stuff like Hollywood Revue of 1929 (another Warner Archive offering!), Benny takes on a more subtle turn here as a medicine man with a small time traveling carnival. His character becomes the savior of poor Betty Bronson and Billy Butts, children of an abusive shopkeeper played by E. Alyn Warren. Benny and Bronson fall for each other, but can they marry before the show leaves town? Story is pure hokum befitting of a D.W. Griffith melodrama, and the comedy doesn’t work in this poorly paced story. Even worse, Warren’s nasty character is so cruel it throws everything else off. This is a cruddy movie all the way; even Bronson’s somewhat nuanced performance can’t save it.
Smoke Signals (1998). A brooding Native American (Adam Beach) needs to travel to another state to retrieve the body of his recently deceased father. In order to do so, he must take a long road trip with the nerdy young man (Evan Adams) who was saved from a burning building as a baby. Laid back indie is noted for its all Native cast. The acting is actually very good all around, even if the so-so story fails to accomplish much. I liked how the director presents an unvarnished view of Native life in which even the smaller characters have a depth and humor. The film’s latter half gets seriously derailed by Beach’s horrible wig, however. This was recommended by Leonard Maltin and my mom, both of whom have strikingly similar tastes in (rather facile) feel-good entertainment.
I’ve watched so many movies this week, I’m splitting them in two (again). More tomorrow, folks!

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