Two things I forgot to put in last Sunday’s Mishmash, probably because neither are all that memorable:
Letter from an Unknown Woman (2004). This was the result of an odd switcheroo from Netflix. Originally I put the 1948 version of Letter from an Unknown Woman starring Joan Fontaine on my queue. When it came time for it to be shipped, however, I noticed they switched the ’48 version with this newer Chinese remake (making matters worse, the ’48 version is no longer available at Netflix!). This was a strictly okay movie, slow-paced but absorbing, with a premise that hinges on the unbelievable probability that a man wouldn’t recognize the woman he’d slept with years earlier. This one takes place during the cultural revolution of the ’30s and ’40s, which makes it mildly interesting. What I really want to see is Max Ophuls’ 1948 original, however, which ranks among the hardest classic films to see. In twenty-plus years, I’ve never heard of it being shown on classic movie channels or on home video.
What Makes Sammy Run? (Sunday Showcase DVD). Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? is one of the great Hollywood novels, but the book is so bitter about the subject that it has rarely been adapted anywhere else. This 1959 live TV drama, which survives on DVD via a kinescope, is one of the few that made it to the screen. Larry Blyden is all intensity as Sammy Glick, world class suck-up who makes his way from newspaper copy boy to powerful Hollywood player. Although this version has all the hallmarks of early TV (clumsy pacing, technical glitches), it was a fun and interesting watch.
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Two things I forgot to put in last Sunday’s Mishmash, probably because neither are all that memorable:
Obama’s infomercial might have been too slick and manipulative, but it reminds me that very few politicians can be called “inspiring.” I can’t believe we might actually have a calm, rational, statesmanlike president. We’ve already sent in our early ballots and made the right choice.
As far as campaign ads go, I much prefer this:
Dr. Monica (1934) and Confession (1937). More Tivo’d Kay Francis. Dr. Monica is the second film in which Kay played a doctor. For this go-round, she’s treating a young woman who has gotten “into trouble” — by Kay’s husband, Warren William! All in all, a typically soapy outing for her that flies by (literally!) in less than an hour. Probably the best thing about this movie is the amazing Verree Teasdale playing Miss Francis’ tart best friend. Teasdale only appeared in 27 films over a career that scarcely lasted a decade, but the woman could do more with an arched eyebrow and sideways glance than most actors could do with their whole bodies. Confession was one of those films that first got me into seeing obscure old b&w films, when it showed up amongst several other Warner Bros. quickies in my local channel’s “Late Show” slot. The story is typical to the extreme (basically Kay avenging an indiscretion by verminlike ex-lover Basil Rathbone), but what really sets this melodrama apart is the stylized German Expressionist direction. The gauzy shots of ceiling fixtures and closed eyes give this film a curiously outdated feel for 1937 — but now that I know the director was making a shot-for-shot remake of an earlier film, the whole thing makes nutty sense. The re-viewing finds that the film holds up nicely, with an excellent performance from Francis. Even Christopher, a die hard Kay-hater, enjoyed this.
The Rape of Europa (2006) and King Corn (2007). Two thought provoking documentaries arrived this week. The stuffily titled Rape of Europa is a fascinating look into the myriad ways the Nazis stole and plundered priceless works of art throughout World War II, and the great lengths those who owned unplundered pieces went through to preserve their holdings. Although it becomes somewhat dull in the second (post-WWII era) half, the film was chock full of excellent interviews from those who were there, along with a host of art/history experts. On a superficial note, I loved all the beautiful tracking shots of paintings in sumptuous widescreen. King Corn deals with the here and now, namely how the mass production of cheap, grainy corn has dominated America’s farmland in the last 25 years or so. In it, two regular guys decide to plant an acre of corn to see how it’s grown and where it goes once harvested. Although a lot of the material was familiar to me, it still had several eye-opening (and sad) moments. Quirky stop-motion animation and lots of lovely, languid shots of Iowa farmland contribute to a thoughtful film that simply illustrates the cost of getting us fed (and, consequently, why we’ve gotten so fat).
Storm Warning (1951). Doris Day and the Klu Klux Klan, who’da thunk it? This was an engrossing melodrama starring Ginger Rogers as a woman who visits her sister (Day) in a small Southern town. Upon arriving, she witnesses a ghastly murder committed by Klansmen, and is shocked to find that one of the men involved is her own brother-in-law (Steve Cochran, slimy yet sexy). As the film unfolds, Rogers finds that the town will go to great lengths to keep her from spilling the beans to the D.A. investigating the crime (Ronald Reagan). This was a very unusual and interesting film which piles on the creepy, sweaty atmosphere effectively. The cast is excellent; even Reagan surprised. One pointy hood up.
You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story (American Masters, PBS). I was totally looking forward to this, since American Masters‘ thoroughness makes even a semi-decent subject worthwhile (personally I enjoy American Experience more, but that’s neither here nor there). But then I got a bit leery when seeing that this six hour opus was the work of Richard Schickel. The guy is the McDonalds of documentary filmmaking — ubiquitous and boring — and I hate how he uses the same experts over and over again (Martin Scorcese, anyone?). On the plus side, there are a lot of great movie clips used througout, and the first hour nicely summarizes Warners’ zippy pre-Code era. Unfortunately, it quickly turns disjointed and at times downright dishonest (from watching this you’d think Warners only did critically acclaimed auteur films in the ’70s). Full disclosure: I never watched the final part, dealing with 1980 to the present, but I can guess how it turned out. The later stuff doesn’t appeal much to me, anyhow.
The Adventurers (1970). Sitting through three hours of this Harold Robbins adaptation give me the burning need to have an “I survived The Adventurers” t-shirt made up. I was expecting something of a campy romp, but in actuality this movie is a fairly straight-faced chronicle of a young man (played by the obscure and charmless Bekim Fehmiu) as he criss crosses between battle-scarred South America and the poshest enclaves of Europe. The filmmakers were going for a sense of serious epic storytelling, but the script is so hackneyed and dull that one just sits there waiting for something, anything to happen. Things do perk up a bit when Candice Bergen shows up as Fehmiu’s bride, and there are a couple of cringe-inducing fashion shows to gape at. Other than that, this movie is all battles, straight sex, and endless conversations. And Ernest Borgnine.
The Deadly Mantis (1957). As far as giant insect movies go, The Deadly Mantis falls right around the middle. It’s no Them!, but it sufficed for our Saturday night viewing. Competently produced by a big studio, the thrills build up nicely and the cast does a decent enough job. By the end, I was actually feeling sorry for the poor giant praying mantis getting firebombed in the Manhattan Tunnel. All it probably wanted were a few massive aphids to eat.
Kites Are Fun – The Free Design. I love the Free Design, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to download their signature album despite already owning the songs on various old compilations. Kites Are Fun was their first effort from 1967, and right away they have that super-sugary blend of lite pop, jazz and folk down pat. The title track and “My Brother Woody” are not recommended for the diabetic, and ballads like “Don’t Turn Away” are quietly compelling. The anti-materialist screen “The Proper Ornaments” is one of my very favorite tracks of theirs. They rock the harpsichords and quasi-medieval touches on that cut, and the fact that they use the same approach on their cover of the Beatles’ “Michelle” slays me. The album is oddly dated yet timeless at the same time, and listening to it makes me wonder how something as unique as the Free Design ever existed in the first place.
The Last Emperor (1987). This is one of the few Best Picture Oscar winners that I can remember seeing in a theater when it originally came out. Criterion’s recent DVD is a great way to revisit the movie. The sumptuousness of the Chinese court and the Forbidden City scenes look as breath-taking as ever, although if I have a tiny complaint it’s that the second, less sumptuous half doesn’t quite live up to the first. Great direction from Bernardo Bertolucci.
Number 1′s – Stevie Wonder. Amazon’s mp3 store has gotten more interesting since they’ve been running daily specials on certain albums, where customers can download something very cheaply but only for a short time. I nabbed this Stevie Wonder compilation for $2.99 before the price was jacked back up the next day. I have a small issue with the title — since it omits a couple of #1 R&B hits and substitutes other tunes which didn’t hit the top spot on any charts — but it’s classic Stevie and I couldn’t resist at that price.
The Oscar (1966). Oh my. This one really does live up to its camp classic reputation and plays sort of like a male-centric Valley of the Dolls. Where to begin? The balls-out hamminess of Stephen Boyd? The fact that slump-shouldered Tony Bennett flashes back to scenes that his character doesn’t even appear in? The headache-inducing interiors, heavy on gilt-framed French Impressionist prints? Or maybe it’s the odd assortment of celebrity cameos in which they’re placed in the background like props (look, it’s Edith Head!)? All that and Ernest Borgnine, too.
The Threepenny Opera (1931). One of those films that Christopher decided he didn’t want to watch (and he sat through The Adventurers with me!), so I had to view it in tiny chunks over the course of about 10 days. This was a pretty good film, beautifully restored, although in general it didn’t bowl me over. I guess it’s more interesting as a period piece for director G.W. Pabst and early sound German cinema than as an accurate version of the stage piece it’s based upon.