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Category Archives: Roundup

Flick Clique: March 18-24

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011). Great documentary on esteemed schlock movie producer Roger Corman. This wasn’t particularly revealing or deep, but it’s a fast-paced and enjoyable combo profile/career retrospective. DVD Talk review is here (I see it got a nice write-up in the new Entertainment Weekly, too).
Deadline at Dawn (1946) and Backfire (1950). These two films shared a disc on the Warner Bros. Film Noir Classics Vol. 5 set from a few years back. A crack RKO production, Deadline at Dawn has wide-eyed sailor Bill Williams and cynical dancing girl Susan Hayward tramping about third-shift Manhattan attempting to solve the murder of a woman with whom Williams shared a few badly-timed moments (not to mention a big wad of cash). The story is a little too out-there to be truly believable, but I found the film enjoyable enough. Hayward is excellent, and Williams was quite the cutie back then (some of his good looks were inherited by his son, William Katt). The Warner Bros. production Backfire also had a gritty appeal, although the film wasn’t nearly as engaging. This one concerns a hospitalized serviceman (hunky Gordon MacRae) who sees a vision of a mysterious dark-haired woman in the night. He convinces his nurse girlfriend Virginia Mayo that the woman has something to do with the unexplained disappearance of his best friend, Edmund O’Brien. The two decide to play amateur detectives and uncover a mess of underworld activity in the L.A. area, which eventually leads to O’Brien’s whereabouts. Nicely paced, attractively cast, and having that vintage W.B. style, but the film never really comes together in a satisfying whole.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Having never seen any of the older Planet of the Apes movies besides the original, I put these on the DVR when they showed up on ThisTV. I figured these two sequels were probably pretty cheesy anyhow, so what difference would a few commercial breaks and a pan-n-scan picture make? Escape was actually pretty fun, with the first film’s Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) going through a time warp and winding up curiosities – and eventual media celebrities – in ’70s Los Angeles. A cheap production (it looks like a TV movie), but McDowall and Hunter contribute good performances underneath all that ape makeup and the silly story (with Zira getting pregnant and the U.S. Feds, fearful of an intelligent ape population, to hold them captive) has just enough intrigue to keep it watchable. Loved Jerry Goldsmith’s campy and delightfully dated score, too. Conquest returns the series to deadly-serious mode, with Cornelius and Zira’s grown son (also played by McDowall) coming to terms with a 1991 America in which the apes have replaced cats and dogs (who were eradicated by a virus) as humankind’s pets/servants. Heavy handed and boring.
No Man of Her Own (1950). An old favorite with Barbara Stanwyck as a destitute single mom who adopts another woman’s identity (in a story that seems to have foreshadowed every film produced by Lifetime Television). I was delighted to find that it’s getting a DVD reissue from Olive Films this month. My DVD Talk review is here.
Out of Sight (1998). You remember this one, right? One of the more acclaimed films of the ’90s concerned the pursuit/flirtation between George Clooney’s suave career criminal and Jennifer Lopez’s tough U.S. Marshall. Although it’s overlong and doesn’t quite hang together sometimes, I found this as excellently written and cast as everybody said. I didn’t quite believe Clooney, but he was charming all the same. Lopez was shockingly good (whatever happened to her movie career, anyhow?). I also loved the supporting players – all of them! This is the kind of film that has talented actors occupying every little corner (including Viola Davis as the consort of one of the thugs Lopez is tailing). Director Stephen Soderbergh employs a fascinating flash back/forward technique here, establishing contrasting moods between the characters and the places they occupy – check out the differences between Miami and Detroit. The film has its share of padded-out scenes (like the Clooney/Lopez seduction), but overall it was successful.

Flick Clique: March 11-17

Dick Tracy, Detective (1945) and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). We didn’t really have anything to watch last Monday night, so we made a double feature out of these two b-movies RKO did in the ’40s starring Chester Gould’s hook-nosed police detective. Although they don’t get anywhere near capturing the jazzy/ghoulish flavor of the comic, both Detective and Meets Gruesome are workmanlike, occasionally fun b-mysteries. Detective, with Tracy tracking down the common thread amongst several murders of people from varying backgrounds, has the more intriguing story and better pacing of the two. Morgan Conway is bland beyond belief as Tracy, but I enjoyed the salty Tess Trueheart played by Anne Jeffreys. Meets Gruesome‘s more cartoonish plot concerns a smoke which rendered anyone who smells it immobile, which a gang of criminals form into a bomb to help them rob a bank. The investigation by intrepid Tracy, now embodied by the more capable Ralph Byrd (who originated the role in the 1930s serial edition Tracy – are you taking notes?), leads him to Boris Karloff’s menacing ex-con Gruesome. Karloff is a hoot, but the film suffers from glacial pacing and I couldn’t get past all the goofy character names (I.M. Learned – really?). Both of these public domain goodies were on the Mystery Classics 50 Movie DVD set.
Keaton Plus (2004 DVD). This was a DVD that I came across at the local library – it consists of odds and ends involving Buster Keaton that Kino didn’t put on the other discs containing the silent legend’s films and shorts. Exactly the kind of stuff we dig! Overall, the disc is inconsistent but fascinating. The best parts are the films and fragments from his peak, including the short Ten Girls Ago. There are also two shorts he did in the mid-’30s, which are fun but not nearly as inventive, a fragment of an unreleased 1962 comedy, vintage commercials, tributes, photos and more. Probably the most absorbing part has Keaton historian John Bengston outlining various Los Angeles and San Francisco locales Keaton used in his shorts, with now-and-then photos. Tributes from Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish offer a neat glimpse into how silent films were repackaged for TV in the ’60s and ’70s. Not everything on this disc is great, but we had a ball combing through it.
Stagecoach (1939). The other disc that I picked up at the library (we recently dumped Netflix streaming, so I’m looking for alternatives). As I previously noted, the local library has a few dozen Criterion DVDs (with booklets and everything) in their stacks. Stagecoach is one of those classic classics that I’ve mysteriously never gotten around to seeing before. Though I’m not normally a fan of Westerns or John Wayne, I found myself swept into this one. John Ford really had a gift for doing engaging characters who interact in a realistic way. Loved Thomas Mitchell and Donald Meek, but probably my fave was Claire Trevor as hooker-with-a-hear-o-gold Dallas. As an IMDb user aptly stated: “She was a very real, honest actress. I never get a sense of phoniness when Claire Trevor is on the screen. She gives a remarkable performance in Stagecoach.” The film seems to be anticlimactic after the expertly staged Apache ambush scene, and the score is overbearing and badly dated, but otherwise it was a terrific ensemble piece. I can’t get enough of John Wayne’s iconic first appearance, in which the camera zooms in, goes out of focus momentarly, then settles on Wayne blinking just after the focus comes back. That’s star quality! The Criterion DVD of Stagecoach also included a quaint but interesting early John Ford silent, Bucking Broadway from 1917.

Flick Clique: March 4-10

Bits ‘n pieces on the films I watched the week before: Anastasia (1956; *** of five), seen just before Netflix streaming dropped it, plushly produced, moribund, talky, liked Ingrid, loved Helen Hayes. Classe Tous Risques (1960; ****), absorbing French film noir, gritty, realistic. Bag It (2010; ****), good documentary with a smug protagonist, my DVD Talk review goes into it a whole lot more.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). For our new blu-ray player, I wanted to get something special to try it out. I ended up buying Criterion’s The Curious Case of Bemjamin Button for several reasons: I like David Fincher’s films, and this particular one I haven’t yet seen; it was the only used Criterion blu at our local used CD/DVD/everything else store; it had a ton of interesting-looking extras; what better way to break in the blu than a recent, gorgeously photographed (but somewhat flawed) film? Even though it was long and overproduced, I ended up being absorbed by this unwieldy beast of a film. I think what makes it work is Fincher’s attention to detail, and he does wring out some excellent work from Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. The aging effects makeup varies wildly from obvious to subtle, and the CGI with an elderly-looking Pitt’s face plastered on small, hobbled bodies is still pretty amazing. Overall, the film is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive whole, with some parts working beautifully although not quite fitting in (the backwards clock saga) and others seeming stagy and overwrought – like the framing scenes with a dying Cate dealing with adult daughter Julia Ormond in a hospital as a hurricane approaches. These scenes came across like little more than a classy version of The Notebook, but where The Notebook is a trashy little paperback whose cover sports raised gold lettering, Benjamin is a two-ton coffee table book chockablock full of visually resplendent images. I’m glad I got this, and the making-of stuff is even more fascinating than the final product.
Fresh (2009). Workmanlike documentary is something of an adjunct to the better-made Food, Inc. Whereas Food, Inc. explores the commodification of America’s agriculture and the shocking ways our food is processed, packaged, subsidized and consumed, Fresh turns a more optimistic eye towards organic farming and the ways in which the enterprising few are bucking the system. I though it was pretty good, with some rather sad footage of industrial farms contrasted with more bucolic chickens, cows, etc. enjoying themselves. Although it’s a noble enterprise, certain parts feel second-hand (re-employing several of Food, Inc.‘s talking heads) and despite its short length it feels padded out. I will have a more comprehensive review posted at DVD Talk this week.
Invictus (2009). Put this on my Netflix queue eons ago because — we saw the giant-sized poster in Burbank? Or perhaps I wanted to see Matt Damon bulked-up and wearing short shorts? Whatever the reason, we sat through this cliché-ridden living history/inspirational sports story this weekend. I tend to run hot and cold with the Clint Eastwood films. Some of the stuff he’s directed has been absorbing although strangely clinical (Changeling), or beautifully mounted and kinda ponderous (Letters from Iwo Jima). Invictus is probably the worst Clint flick I’ve seen. In telling the story of Nelson Mandela’s efforts to boost South Africa’s national morale by gently guiding the country’s rugby team (coached by a befuddled-looking Damon) to victory, it labors to be both a historic narrative and a rousing sports flick and fails on both counts. He gets some decent performances from Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon; the main problem is a dull script filled with shallowly defined characters (racist bodyguards, petulant rugby players, etc.) and interminable game scenes that are a cipher to anyone who doesn’t know rugby. As far as I can tell, rugby is a sexy, manly sport — certainly someone could make a good movie out of that (including locker room/shower footage).
Riding on Air (1937). Immediately after finishing Benjamin Button, I was yearning for something light, fun and old – so I dug out this hoary RKO b-flick from my cheapo public domain comedies DVD set. Riding on Air was one of the first films the athletic, cavern-mouthed Joe E. Brown did after concluding his stretch as a top Warner Bros. comedy star. Here, Brown plays Elmer Lane, a small town newspaper editor/amateur aviator whose (somewhat obnoxious) pursuit of the latest scoop lands him in trouble with bootlegging criminals. Rather dumb, forgettable film with an inscrutable plot. In his Warner comedies, I always found Brown enjoyable in a goofy way (Alibi Ike is perhaps the best); this film demonstrates what a difference good scripts and a competent production make. Leading lady Florence Rice is pleasant, otherwise this is recommended only for Joe E. Brown fanatics (are there any?).
Summer Hours (2008). Gently paced slice-of-life familial drama of an aged French woman (Edith Scob) who regularly invites her grown children and their offspring for gatherings at the country estate owned by her late uncle, a famous artist. Having just celebrated her 75th birthday, she gets together with her eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling) to talk about how to deal with her estate and the valuable art/furniture it holds after she passes on. Frédéric begs off the discussion. When the woman subsequently dies, Frédéric is committed to keeping the collection and estate in the family. His decidedly less sentimental siblings Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) have a more realistic outlook, however, which ultimately prevails. Subtle, nicely acted film. This isn’t a film where a lot of exciting stuff happens (Frédéric’s daughter getting busted for pot possession is probably the most drama-filled moment), but it does deal sensitively and realistically with what likely happens in a lot of families. It’s also a great film about the beauty of objects and the perceptions that they hold – this is nicely illustrated in the scene where the old woman’s longtime housekeeper decides to keep one humble memento of her employer – a hand-blown glass vase which, unbeknownst to her, is a valuable antique.

Flick Clique: February 19-25

Let ‘Em Have It (1936). Gritty little gangster pic made as the film industry was pressured to glorify the good, hard-working long arm of the law over the bad guys. The film follows three young FBI recruits, played by Richard Arlen, Henry Stephens and Gordon Jones, as they pursue an attempted extortion/kidnapping case involving the family of socialite Virginia Bruce. Produced by indie Edward Small Productions, this was a decent, faced-paced flick with more action and violence that what you’d normally expect from a ’30s-era picture. The story is very similar to the James Cagney vehicle G-Men, with all its straightforward and often unintentionally funny procedural scenes, although it lacks the nuance of that one. I bought the DVD since it appears on Joyce Compton‘s filmography. Despite getting seventh billing in the credits, Joyce’s part is a bit of nothing as the girlfriend of one of the FBI recruits; she really should have angled for the meaty roles of the gangster’s molls filled (nicely) by Barbara Pepper and Dorothy Appleby.
Murder with Pictures (1936). This was another Joyce film I got on DVD, as part of the Mystery Classics 50 Movie Pack we recently acquired. Cliché-ridden comedy/mystery stars a too-smirky Lew Ayres as a newspaper photographer who enjoys outpacing the police on various hot cases. He winds up becoming part of the story he’s covering when an alluring lady (Gail Patrick) who is a murder suspect enters his apartment seeking shelter from the pursuing authorities. Ayres winds up helping the woman AND coming up with the incriminating photograph that proves who the real killer is. A rather silly, slight film that (at the very least) moves along at a brisk pace and has a glossy production unusual for a b-picture. The plot gets needlessly complex, Ayres is more annoying than good, but Patrick is a knockout — and so is Joyce Compton! She’s got a fairly decent-sized role here as Ayres’ jealous fiancée, looking swanky in fur-lined ensembles designed by Edith Head. Warning: the version of this film on the cheap-o DVD looks as if it went through Photoshop’s blur filter.
Ossessione (1943). We rented this, a pioneering Italian Realist film from director Luchino Visconti, because it looked intriguing and it was frequently cited as an influence on the Story of a Love Affair DVD I recently reviewed. Ossessione was an unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice which predated the American MGM version by a few years — which led to it being withdrawn from distribution for several years. It’s fascinating to see this in comparison with the more faithfully done American version. This one is more of a “love story gone wrong” chronicle with committed performances from the cast and lots of passionate, soul-searching dialogue (which leads to it being over-extended at more than two hours length). Story‘s Massimo Girotti is the swarthy Italian drifter who happens upon the countryside eatery run by Clara Calamai and her corpulent husband (Juan de Landa). Girotti and Calami immediately spark an affair, fall in love and scheme to off the woman’s husband. You know where that’s going. Like most Neorealist cinema, this was filmed in actual locations with apparently real people (not actors) as extras, lending itself to the painfully real situation the main couple get themselves into. There’s also a few additional elements not in the Cain book, such as when Girotti breaks free from Calamai’s manipulations and cultivates a friendship with a drifting artist played by Elio Marcuzzi. I was getting unspoken homo vibes off that relationship, which was likely intentional on the filmmakers’ part. Although the film didn’t bowl me over, it is an intriguing look at how American culture influenced those in Europe (how they filmed this while WWII was raging, I couldn’t begin to decipher).
Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker (1970). Another offbeat disc I picked from the DVD Talk pool. Here’s my review.
Take Shelter (2011). Oscars are tonight! Christopher picked the indie Take Shelter since it garnered some buzz for leading actor Michael Shannon in one of those “not nominated, but shoulda been” cases. As a midwestern blue-collar worker whose psychotic delusions are slowly dissolving his family, Shannon does deliver a memorable performance that simmers with intensity without getting too showboat-y. I also enjoyed Jessica Chastain as Shannon’s wife. The film gets somewhat too moribund and talky for my personal tastes, but it is an effective film that does a lot with its meager budget to convey an unsettling, increasingly claustrophobic feel. Shannon’s character is completely sympathetic, since one can feel that he is trying to be a decent fellow despite certain things (mental illness in his family, stress at work) are working against him. Interestingly, Shannon and another of the film’s actors, Shea Wigham, are also featured in Boardwalk Empire (which we started watching this week).

Flick Clique: February 5-11

He Walked By Night (1949). This past week, I stumbled across a display with those Mill Creek 50 movie-packs of DVDs at Wal-Mart for $10 each. I ended up buying the Mystery Classics pack, since it was on my Amazon wish list anyhow. I know that most of the movies on these sets are b-movies of iffy quality, but that’s part of what makes them fun (and for 20 cents each – whatta deal!). The proto-Dragnet L.A. crime drama He Walked By Night was one of the better-received films on this particular set, so I decided to check that one out first. Based on a true story, this one follows a criminal and petty thief played by Richard Basehart as he hides from the authorities after shooting an off-duty officer in cold blood. The film is shot mostly from the police department’s perspective as they use the latest technology to track down the man. They interrogate several witnesses as Basehart goes on a one-man crime spree, climaxing in an exciting film noir shootout in the subterranean drainage system below the L.A. streets. This was campy and dated at times, but enjoyable all the same. I’m glad I sprung for this set — one down, 49 to go!
The Informant! (2009). An uneasy mix of comedy, drama and bad facial hair from director Steven Soderbergh, The Informant! is a fancifully told version of a real scandal that rocked Archer Daniels Midland, a producer of animal feed additive lysine, in the 1990s. The film follows Matt Damon’s pompous Mark Whitacre as he alerts the FBI to illegal price-fixing activities (which he set up) at his employer, digging himself in a deeper hole as his lies grow to bigger and bigger proportions. The film was interesting, even though many of the elements aren’t totally successful. Damon’s performance is the best part. He gets at his character’s dimwitted myopia without going into an easy, overly jokey path. I also enjoyed the production design recreating a clunky, business-y version of Illinois in 1991-95 (how much fun would that be?). The overall feel is a weird jumbling of ’70s cop show music (via an overbearing score by Marvin Hamlisch), ’60s Austin Powers fonts and straightforward, serious dramatic scenes. The story was strong enough to overcome its shortcomings, however, and it was appealingly cast enough for me to enjoy it overall.
Mr. North (1988). A pleasant trifle set in 1920s Newport, Rhode Island, Mr. North is based on a Thorton Wilder story about a man whose ability to generate electric sparks from his fingers leads those around him to believe he has healing powers. I remember hearing a few good things about this when it came out, that it was a sleeper hit, etc. I found it kind of dull and pointless, however. Anthony Edwards has a curious lack of charisma in the title role (no wonder he never became a movie star), and the supporting players go all over the place, from somewhat decent (Mary Stuart Masterson as a sensitive deb), to noncommittal (Robert Mitchum and Lauren Bacall) to scenery-chewing (Twisted Sister video guy as Masterson’s father). The film itself is not very involving and ingratiating in its efforts to be heartwarming and cute. I blame director Danny Huston.
The Mysterious Lady (1928). Like Flesh and the Devil, another luxe Greta Garbo silent from the set that I bought in December 2010. This one has Garbo as a slinky Russian spy sent to World War I-era Vienna to get sensitive information from an Army captain, played by dashing Conrad Nagel. Nagel is immediately smitten by the alluring Garbo, even when he learns her true identity just before getting arrested and imprisoned. This one was done at the peak of the Silent era, and it shows. The spy story itself is rather typical, but MGM’s gloss is in full force and Garbo delivers more emotion in a sideways glance than many actresses do in their entire bodies.
Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire (2004). Impressively mounted Korean bio-pic chronicles the career and life of Rikidozan, a Korean-born wrestler who became a star in the nascent Japanese pro wrestling scene in the ’50s. A samurai school reject, Rikidozan eventually prevailed over a culture desperately in need of a powerful, virile hero in the post-WWII era (despite never revealing his true birthplace, since the Japanese had a prejudice against Koreans). A very intriguing film that delves into Rikidozan’s inner demons and slow, gradual decline. It definitely doesn’t indulge in the usual sports movie clichés, that’s for sure. I will have a more detailed review at DVDTalk soon.

Flick Clique: January 29 – February 4

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). I’ve wanted to check out this campy sexploitation flick ever since Roger Ebert rhapsodized over it on an old episode of Sneak Previews (what, 30 years ago? I’m old!). I’ve had it on my Netflix instant queue for a while now, but since I spotted a copy in the DVD racks at Big Lots (paired with Invasion of the Star Creatures), I decided to pick it up instead. The film follows a federal investigator (William Smith) as he looks into a series of strange deaths in a desert town containing a top-secret bio lab. The victims, all men who died during intercourse, eventually point to a sadistic ring of killer ladies headed by Dr. Susan Harris (lovely Anitra Ford), a research doctor who uses radioactive energy to transform herself and many of the local women into foxy, lethal “bee women.” While it doesn’t quite reach the levels of greatness Ebert proclaims (read his take here), it is a grubby, cheesy and undeniably fun time. It’s basically like an old Cannon episode with lots of T&A and a few weird set pieces — the gloopy bee-woman transformation scene is a can’t miss moment.
Shark Night 3D (2011). A silly film about college students who spend their Spring Break at a remote home in the swamplands of Florida. One by one, they become shark food. There, I just saved you 91 minutes. You can thank me later.
Story of a Love Affair (1950). A disc I requested (and got!) for a DVD Talk review. The sordid, fascinating Story of a Love Affair was the first dramatic film from the legendary director Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura, Blow-Up). Though it doesn’t share too much in common with his ’60s output, this is still a worthwhile drama which combines elements of Italian Neorealism and Film Noir. The story begins in a Milan detective office with a wealthy older man, holding unfamiliar photos of his new, younger wife, wanting to know more about who she knew before she met him. The detective hired to investigate tracks her earlier life to a smaller Italian town, where he calls upon the home of one of her old friends. A letter alerts the woman under investigation, Paola (Lucia Bosé), to the idea that the detective may find out about the accidental death of a third girlfriend that involved Paola and her ex-lover, Guido (Massimo Girotti). Back in Milan, Paola gets back in touch with Guido and the two rekindle their affair. Meeting in tucked-away places in the desolate city, the couple’s paranoia escalates to such a degree that the predatory Paola convinces Guido to do something drastic, before their terrible secret is exposed. Compelling, grimy little noir which is immeasurably aided by Antonioni’s shooting much of the film at various outdoor locales (cafés, roads, bridges, etc.) — the postwar Italian setting is just as much a character as the people. Lucia Bosé as Paola is quite a presence, sashaying around in stunningly modern outfits. She and the other cast members contribute fine performances to this worthwhile flick.
Tess (1979). “Why did you want to see this?” – C. “I dunno, I always wanted to see it.” – M. So began our viewing of Tess, Roman Polanski’s plush literary adaptation of yesteryear starring a young Natassja Kinski. The film, long but involving, revolves around Kinski’s Tess d’Ubervilles, a 19th century British farm girl. Tess’ father receives word that the family may be related to a wealthy noble family living nearby, so they send Tess to their estate to investigate. She winds up working on the estate, and ultimately is seduced by her cousin Alec (Leigh Lawson). The pregnant Tess goes to work on a different farm, where her baby ends up dying young. Her travels take her to yet another British farm where she meets Angel (Peter Firth), an earnest young man who is so smitten by the young beauty that he goes to unspeakable extremes to keep her safe and happy. This film has an oddly out-of-date feel, coming across more like a ’60s historical drama like A Man For All Seasons. Polanski has a wonderful eye for accurate details that envelope the viewer, however, with some scenes appearing as if they came right from an 1800s oil painting of country life. It’s also abundantly clear that he’s fascinated with Kinski, bestowing her face with long, loving close-ups. This film plays at times like an old-style Hollywood Actress Costume Epic, starting with Kinski’s resemblance to Ingrid Bergman and following through to the melodramatic finale. Performance-wise, she’s pretty good if somewhat tentative. If she seems unfeeling and faraway at times, that’s because the character is supposed to be that way. Tess isn’t the kind of film I’d return to often, but I’m happy I finally got to see it.