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Flick Clique: August 14-20

Blackmail Is My Life (1967). This Japanese gangster drama caught my eye on Netflix instant. Actor Hiroki Matsukata plays a yakuza who gathers his three best pals to blackmail a businessman. Initially all goes as planned, but as their deeds get exposed to the rival yakuza gangs it leads to death and what was previously a benign snow job becomes a dark revenge fantasy. The first half of this film is a riot, directed in a wild, stylized manner by Kinji Fukasaku. The daring use of quick cuts, color/black & white and still photos make it a trippy must-see — up until the more conventional second half, that is. I also enjoyed the tight interplay within Matsukata’s gang, which includes a lug, a pretty woman, and a part-black boxer. At times their exploits play like a groovy Japanese mashup of Mission: Impossible and The Monkees. The film becomes more incomprehensible and less zippy as it moves along, however. Even with a letdown of a closing scene, Blackmail Is My Life is the kind of flick that grabs you by the lapels and never lets go.
C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979). I TiVo’d this live action comedy from the Hanna Barbera studio when it popped up on the ThisTV schedule one recent Saturday morning. One can be forgiven for thinking this film about a robotic, crime fighting dog came from the Disney studio — superficially it has the same feel as stuff like The North Avenue Irregulars, but with a more “wacky” and cartoonish vibe. The story revolves around a young inventor (Wesley Eurie of Land of the Lost) who has just been fired by the disapproving head of a security company (played by Conrad Bain of Diff’rent Strokes) despite the fact that he’s dating the boss’s daughter (One Day at a Time‘s Valerie Bertinelli). Eurie’s ace-in-the-hole is the animatronic Canine Home Protection System (C.H.O.M.P.S.) he devised, an unassuming dog-bot that fights off intruders so well it prompts the head of a rival company (Jim Backus) to hire two bumbling henchmen (Chuck McCann and Red Buttons) to acquire the plans for the wonder pooch. A little too shrill and cheesy for my tastes; my advice is to only show this to a kid if you secretly loathe him or her. Apparently this was the only time Hanna Barbera ventured into live action films — the score by longtime H.B. composer Hoyt Curtin certainly hews to a Saturday Morning Cartoon formula (the doggie’s “take charge” theme will rattle around in my brain for weeks to come). Hanna Barbera’s midcentury modern studio building in Studio City, California stands in for Bain’s security company headquarters here.
Downhill Racer (1969). Interesting if flawed high octane sports drama with Robert Redford as a cocky skier. Redford plays an aspiring Olympian from the sticks who is lured by the glory and commercialism that comes with being a winner, despite the efforts of his pragmatic coach (played by a young Gene Hackman) to keep him in line. Taking on the business of sports is a rather novel theme, and in that respect the film succeeds. It also has some excitingly filmed ski scenes and great atmosphere of the athletes and the local color in Germany. The film was directed in a quasi-documentary style by Michael Ritchie, who would more successfully team with Redford in The Candidate a few years later (he was also at the helm of a personal fave of mine, 1975’s Smile). To be honest, I’m not sure why this film was selected as part of the Criterion Collection. Despite the stunning outdoor photography, the film suffers from poky pacing and an expendable romantic subplot. I also take issue with the casting of Redford, who is too old and not the right type. At least the DVD has some nice extras, including a vintage making-of featurette that demonstrates how those stunning skier p.o.v. shots came to be (with lots of trial and error, it turns out).
Frisco Jenny (1932). Another quick ‘n tasty William Wellman pre-Code flick from my Forbidden Hollywood DVD set. I saw this one once before, in 2000, and was even compelled to write a mini-review of it for the Internet Movie Database at the time. Here it is (they cut off the end, for some reason):

Ruth Chatterton was a fascinating early ’30s leading lady – she was quite average looking and somewhat chubby, with a brittle, theatrical acting style that hasn’t dated very well. And yet, there’s something in every one of her performances that’s worth watching. She specialized in hard-edged, independent women of the type that Bette Davis would later do with much more depth and sympathy. “Frisco Jenny” was typical of Chatterton’s Warner Brothers vehicles, with a shopworn “women’s picture” storyline that gave her plenty of opportunities to grit her teeth and snap off at characters who got in her way. Nice direction by William Wellman, with a well-placed earthquake to add

That earthquake scene is a real pip, by the way — excitingly constructed and very sophisticated for 1932. I loved Chatterton’s performance and found her very touching during her final scenes. A Pre-Code gem, worth seeing and re-seeing!
I Walk Alone (1946). A surprisingly plush, very involving melodrama with noir elements that I stumbled across in Netflix’s instant offerings. I Walk Alone is the first film that teamed Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, with a sultry Lizabeth Scott in support (what stars!). Burt plays an ex-con who just got sprung from a long sentence (“Fourteen years!” as he repeatedly grunts through gritted teeth) for an alcohol smuggling incident that allowed fellow criminal and pal Kirk to escape punishment. For his pain Lancaster is seeking the payment he was promised from Douglas, now the operator of a swanky nightclub where chanteuse Lizabeth Scott sings. Problem is, Douglas is not sentimental and feels he has no other obligations for his now ex-buddy. A nifty film which kept me interested all the way, even factoring in the youthfulness of the two actors for the characters they’re playing. Burt, Kirk and Lizabeth are all great. The script plays out in a routine manner, but it’s aided by the lushest photography, costuming and set designs that Paramount could buy. I especially enjoyed the dinner scene with Burt and Lizabeth serenaded by a jazz quartet. The scene below has a dubbed Scott doing a torch song, pretty indicative of its luxe aesthetic:

Limitless (2011). Another current, CGI-aided thriller that Christopher rented recently. I enjoyed it, up to a point. Limitless follows Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra, a struggling New York City writer with a dingy apartment to match his unkempt appearance. A chance encounter with his ex-brother in-law leads him in to possess a cache of potent, experimental memory-boosting pills. In short order, he completes the brilliant novel he was attempting, learns a few languages, and impresses his pretty girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and others with his seemingly inhuman perception. As he grows more dependent on the pills, he becomes a Wall Street trading whiz and a business savant, which attracts the attention of mogul Robert De Niro. Nefarious baddies want the pills, however, and Cooper must elude them while battling the devastating side effects of his addiction. This was actually a pretty well-done film — the results of Cooper’s magic pills are effectively conveyed through CGI, color changes, fish eye lenses and other tricks (I wish the trippy zoom effect wasn’t used on the opening credits, however, since its impact is dulled when it comes up again later on). I liked Cooper’s performance, too, especially in the early stages when he finds out just how powerful the pills are. Once he becomes a stereotypical Yuppie Douchebag the film goes somewhat South, however. The problems of a cushy Wall Street investor don’t interest me, no matter how hard the film tries. One intriguing scene has the Cooper character meeting with his ex-wife, nicely played by Anna Friel, who is now battling a pill addiction of her own. The scene hints at the depth that this otherwise silly (but very fun) flick could have explored.
Pornography: A Thriller (2009). From the IMDb’s plot description: “A gay porn star’s mysterious disappearance becomes an obsession for both a writer and another adult film star, leading them into dark supernatural corners that were never meant to be explored.” A low budget indie that held some promise, and succeeds if you dial your expectations way down. Is the cast attractive? Not really. The acting is spotty and the budget is non-existent, but the movie does have a semi-interesting premise. One’s enjoyment of the film depends on whether one can swallow the colossally huge coincidence that a gay porn history researcher winds up living in the very same apartment where the disappeared actor whose work he’s investigating once resided. The film takes on a different, lighter tone in the second half, almost becoming a meta-comment on itself.

2 Thoughts on “Flick Clique: August 14-20

  1. Cristiane on August 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm said:

    Did you see this article in this Sunday’s NY Times?

    I thought you might be interested.
    And I love those pre-code Wellman movies – so tough. Frisco Jenny is a favorite – could only have been made before 1934.

  2. I didn’t see that. Thanks, Christiane!

    I wonder if Dave Kehr has seen I Walk Alone or Blackmail Is My Life on Netflix.

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