Flick Clique: June 5-11
Attack of the Puppet People (1958). Cheap-o, typical AIP scare flick in which the most passionate effort appears to have gone into the poster artwork — need I say more? This film revolves around a demented doll maker (John Hoyt), who has perfected a way to shrink humans down to doll size. He keeps these special dolls in glass containers where they remain in suspended animation, only being released for special “parties” for his own enjoyment. Pretty cruddy flick, and strangely not very eventful — the “attack” promised in the title turns out to be a rather limp attempt at self-defense. Hoyt is a creepy, effective villain, but the script is a bore, especially when it involves bland June Kenney and John Agar as the lead dolls. The special effects are the usual giant prop stuff used in countless bad movies. On the plus side, there is a hilariously awful rock ‘n roll dance sequence.
I Am Waiting (1957). Another offering from Criterion’s Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse box, I Am Waiting is earlier and more leisurely paced than the other films in the set. It is interesting to watch, however, just to check out how Japanese filmmakers covered the Western crime thriller genre. This one deals with an ex-boxer turned restaurant owner who comes across a beautiful yet despondent young woman who is about to kill herself. He gives her a job in the eatery, finding that she is a former nightclub singer who still owes her mobster boss time on her contract, a situation that intensifies once the boss and his fellow henchmen track the woman down. Pretty fun, low on camp but high on tense action (when they eventually come around, that is). The incredible coincidence revealed at film’s climax is a bit far fetched, but the film is tightly directed with a capable, attractive cast. All of the Nikkatsu Noir Criterion flicks are worth checking out, in their own goofy way.
Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood (2011 DVD). I was excited about this epic documentary series upon its first broadcast on TCM in late 2010, and now that it’s gotten a home video release I can finally see what the fuss was about. The seven-hour Moguls & Movie Stars covers a wide swath of film history, from the age of nickelodeons up through the turbulent late ’60s, with a special emphases on the Hollywood studio system and the brilliant, coarse, often contradictory men who ran them. You can’t fault the filmmakers for being ambitious, and the end result is very well crafted for what it is. Film clips are well-chosen, the narration is sturdy and informative, if given voice by the strangely pompous choice of Christopher Plummer. Unfortunately, the “one size fits all” approach makes for a vaguely unsatisfying watch. A lot of the material covered was already familiar to me and Christopher; I imagine it would go over better with the Hollywood history neophyte (speaking of which, is it me or does this series seem better pitched to a PBS audience, or perhaps the pre-ice trucker History Channel?). Most of the interviewees are film authors, generally an insightful bunch but lacking the eyewitness punch of those who were there in person. Interestingly, some of the better commentary comes from actress Marsha Hunt, one of the few remaining survivors of the classic Hollywood studio system. One of the other speakers I enjoyed was author Thomas Schatz, whose book The Genius of the System is perhaps the definitive chronicle on the subject.
Rhythm in the Clouds (1937). And now, the other cheapie musical! I bought this and the similarly threadbare Sitting on the Moon on a double-bill DVD recently, since they both contain appearances by my fave dumb blonde Joyce Compton. With Rhythm in the Clouds getting more prominent billing on the DVD’s package, I found it surprisingly the weaker film of the two (although Joyce has a bigger part in this one, as a ditsy secretary). The story concerns pretty blonde songwriter Patricia Ellis, who makes an impulsive decision to crash a well-known songwriter’s apartment, submitting her own compositions as collaborations with the better-known but oblivious man. Meanwhile, neighbor William Hull is annoyed with his noisy gal next door, but faster than you can say “unbelievable coincidence” he is selected to be the lyricist on her next would-be hit song to be premiered on the hit local radio show. Rather tedious, actually, with a drought of memorable tunes (at least Sitting on the Moon had one good song). This was an early production for b-movie powerhouse Republic Pictures, and from a historical perspective it is at least somewhat interesting to see what (lame) stuff they came up with to compete with the big guys.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2010) and True Grit (2010). Two acclaimed films that have little in common except that both were well represented at this year’s Oscars (Secret took home the Best Foreign Language trophy, while Grit garnered multiple nominations and failed to net a single award). I enjoyed both, a lot. The Argentinian Secret in Their Eyes concerns a retired police detective played by Ricardo Darín, the grizzled actor who made Four Queens and The Aura so compelling. Darín comes back to his former workplace for a friendly meeting with Soledad Villamil, a colleague whom he secretly loved from years back. The meeting inspires him to write a story based on a grisly murder that he worked on in the ’70s, rekindling his feelings for Villamil in the process. Via flashbacks, the case is compellingly told with vivid characters, and the Darín/Villamil relationship is given a real, nuanced treatment. There are also a lot of exciting, tense scenes, such as when the accused killer shares an elevator ride with the leads. True Grit also served as satisfying, if a little safe, entertainment. I never saw the John Wayne version, but I did read the Charles Portis novel years ago. Joel and Ethan Coen’s exacting, naturalistic touch is a good fit for the material. In the film, headstrong 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, excellent) sets out to capture the man who killed her father, enlisting the help of aging yet still tenacious “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and transplanted Texas ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). This is the kind of film that hinges on the likeability of the lead actors, and in this aspect we weren’t let down. Steinfeld is something of a revelation, actually, conveying a smart, no-nonsense quality that never delves into the precocious. Christopher found the postscript at the end somewhat pointless, but I enjoyed seeing how the characters turned out. What I liked most about this film was that it had that indefinable, classic quality that made it feel like it harkened from a different era (whether that time is circa 1952 or the 1800s, I can’t yet tell).