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Flick Clique: January 15-21

Aftershock (2010). China’s Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 is the catalyst for this ambitious family drama that we checked out on Netflix streaming this week (it was also one of the DVDs available for review at DVD Talk, but one of the other reviewers got to it first). It opens with vignettes showing a simple but loving family with two kids, a boy and a girl, in a semi-urban setting. While the parents are outside their modest apartment one night, a terrifying earthquake strikes. The quake instantly kills the father and levels the family’s apartment, leaving the frantic mother digging through the debris to find her children. With the help of rescue workers, the kids are found, alive but injured. The mom is relieved, but her devastation reaches a new low when the rescue workers tell her that they must kill one child to save the other. She tearfully chooses to save her son. While the daughter is left for dead with the other quake victims, she is actually alive and eventually ends up being adopted by a married pair of Maoist soldiers. How the family lives apart over the next thirty years makes up the bulk of the film, made in a more typically soapy (but still engrossing) way. The film is sparked by searing performances, especially from Fan Xu as the mother and Jingchu Xhang as the adult daughter. The direction and CGI effects in the earthquake scenes are exciting, but it’s the emotional resonance of the later scenes that affected me the most.
All Over Town (1937). I decided to check out another offering from the Comedy Kings 50 Movie Pack this week. Going in chronological order, my next flick wound up being this plodding backstage yarn starring the team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. Olsen & Johnson were best known for their Broadway and film success Hellzapoppin’, a supposedly hilarious and ground-breaking work (the film has been out of circulation for several decades). The considerably more low-profile All Over Town has them as a pair of luckless vaudevillians who, mistaken for millionaires, end up getting involved in mounting a variety show at a theater where a murder occurred. Like the other O&J film I’ve seen (Country Gentlemen, co-starring Joyce Compton), the plot is a paper-thin excuse for Olsen’s mugging and Johnson’s annoying, never-ending giggle. The film is a pretty dreadful affair, overall, but it does rebound somewhat with a frenetic finale that has Olsen giving a play-by-play rundown of the cops attempting to catch a killer running loose in the theater while the other actors, musicians and playgoers scramble to get out of the way.
Bigger Than Life (1956). I’ve always wanted to check out this Nicholas Ray-directed, James Mason domestic drama of prescription pill taking gone awry, going all the way back to my regular American Movie Classics (r.i.p.) watching days. Diehard movie buffs have a soft spot for Bigger Than Life, insisting it’s an overlooked treasure on par with Ray’s better known films like Rebel Without A Cause and They Live By Night. I finally got to see the Criterion edition and, well … it’s a pretty good (if overwrought) drama with some cool production design and camerawork. Scenery-chewing, miscast Mason plays a typical American schoolteacher who, stressed with two jobs and a family to support, ends up taking the experimental drug Cortisone to calm his nerves. The medication has deadly effects when not taken correctly, however, and sure enough Mason is scheming, lying and abusing his terrified wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen) in the claustrophobic home-turned-sanitarium they share. The film is interesting, more campy than good (but not quite the screaming camp-o-rama that is Ray’s Johnny Guitar). What I liked most about the film is the design of the house set itself with its moody shadows and travel posters/maps on the walls that mock the closed-in, mounting dread the family undergoes. It also has some neat touches, like the bright red living room couch and the foyer rug with a chaotic stripe pattern. Mason (who also produced) is frankly awful, however – and the passivity of Rush’s character would drive anyone up a wall. It’s a watchable enough drama, but in terms of coded social commentary it doesn’t live up to something like Douglas Sirk’s glossy family dramas. All that Heaven Allows could kick this movie’s butt any time.
Private Hell 36 (1954). Like Aftershock, this was another Netflix stream that we caught this past week — and, triumpantly, it’s another winner! The grittyPrivate Hell 36 deals with a common theme in noir, what happens when men in authority are tempted into doing something they’re not supposed to (in this case, stealing laundered money). Howard Duff and Steve Cochran play cops who bust up a drugstore robbery and find that it involved a counterfeit fifty dollar bill. Tracking the bill to a seedy bar where Ida Lupino sings, they enlist Lupino’s help to find the man who trafficked the money. That man is eventually found, but the officers run his auto off the road, killing the driver. Finding a boxful of stolen money at the scene, Cochran (who has fallen for the manipulative Lupino) decides to steal some of the cash. Cochran convinces the straight-laced Duff into sharing the loot and hiding it in a trailer — could they get away with it? This was a nifty little crime drama that benefits from excellent casting and an absorbing storyline. Lupino and the shifty, swarthy Cochran have a dynamic repartee in this.

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