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Tag Archives: Fredric March

Flick Clique: June 26 – July 2

Burnt Offerings (1976). Next time somebody asks me “What’s the worst Bette Davis movie you’ve ever seen?,” I will answer confidently with this sad, sorry haunted house flick. Davis actually has a supporting role in this, as the crotchety aunt of Oliver Reed. It’s Reed and his flighty wife Karen Black who agree to take care of a remote, crumbling mansion for a summer along with his auntie (Davis) and the couple’s shrill son (Lee Montgomery). Didn’t they notice something was up with the home’s creepy sibling caretakers, played by Burgess Mereditch and Eileen Heckart? Or that they’d have trouble with the unseen old lady who lives in the attic? Yet another film that breezes by on the stupidity of its leading characters. The home has a lot to offer, including a pantry well-stocked with Ding Dongs, but things turn weird when unexplained forces seem to drive Reed and Black into a demented state. Karen Black and Oliver Reed are supposed to be the embodiment of normal, well-adjusted parents, but the actors themselves are somewhat strange anyhow — which makes their casting doubly baffling. Poor Bette Davis has little to do but look increasingly wretched as she realizes the ever-possessed Black is keeping her hostage. I actually remember seeing the ending of this film somewhere else, a hysterical bit in which (spoiler ahead!!) Reed becomes a blood-soaked hood ornament and Montgomery is flattened by a revenge-minded chimney.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). After seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s tense 1956 edition of The Man Who Knew Too Much way back in September 2009, I decided to put the 1934 original on my rental queue to refresh my memory. Although the ’34 version is an okay addition to Hitch’s early British period, the film has enough flaws to make me understand why he’d want to revisit/improve the story. First off, the film covers too much territory in 75 minutes to adequately tell this tale of intrigue and espionage and how it affects a normal British family on holiday. The editing is choppy, and performances range from very good (Peter Lorre, Nova Pilbeam as the daughter) to so-so. The concert hall scene is an exciting set piece in both films, with Hitchcock stylishly conveying an escalating tension through the fretful expressions on his leading ladies’ faces (Edna Best in ’34, Doris Day in ’56). Personally, I prefer the remake over this oft times half-baked, rushed production.
Patrik, Age 1.5 (2008). Feel-good Swedish comedy about an ordinary gay couple who make ripples when they move into a traditional suburb. Göran and Sven desperately want to adopt a child and are overjoyed when they receive notice that they will care for one “Patrik, age 1.5.” When the child arrives, however, he turns out to be a troubled and homophobic 15 year-old who nonetheless finds a way to ingratiate himself within both the family and the surrounding neighborhood. Such a sweet film, driven by the natural performance of actor Gustaf SkarsgÃ¥rd as Göran. I’ve never seen SkarsgÃ¥rd in anything else, but his totally unaffected, level-headed and non-stereotypical portrayal really grounded the film. I also liked Torkel Petersson as his lover, Sven, and Thomas Eriksson does a good job as Patrik despite his character’s abrupt change in attitude. The only debit I could think of is the neighborhood’s surrreal, Edward Scissorhands-like production design.
The Ruins (2008). A recent horror film in which a group of pretty college students journey to an ancient Mayan ruin so remote and forbidding that it has even the locals spooked. Fairly decent scare flick with good special effects and the kind of goofy, out-there hook (it’s the plants — ooh!) that has served many a campfest well. The best moments are in the trailer, of course. The film suffers from the old “idiot characters doing idiotic things” syndrome (see Burnt Offerings, above), however.
The Sign of the Cross (1932). Cecil B. DeMille’s pre-Code recounting of early Christians’ persecution under the crumbling Roman empire follows The King of Kings (1929) in his stoic, somewhat campy line of religious epics. The history is suspect, as usual, with the lion’s share of the story devoted to a blossoming romance between Roman prefect Fredric March and an ethereal Christian woman played by Elissa Landi. The strange thing about DeMille’s movies is that, despite being about morally upright causes like Christianity, he seems to revel in the scenes that depict the hedonistic, anti-Christian life. In fact, this film has the odd distinction of making the Christians look downright boring! March seems to be having a ball as the happy-go-lucky Marcus Superbus (what a name!); his enthusiasm is matched by Claudette Colbert as a slinky Roman empress who schemes to restrain March from Landi’s pious influences. Colbert’s moment in which she takes a luxe bath in donkey’s milk is an unforgettable pre-Code moment, one of several audacious scenes that makes one wonder just how Christian DeMille really was. I also loved the campy, over the top gladiator battles, one of which pits Amazon-sized women against pygmy men. Stuff like that almost makes up for the many dreary scenes with Landi and her dour, Jesus worshiping comrades. Historically accurate? No. Hella fun? Yes!
Waikiki Wedding (1937). When you think of the most popular film in any given year, would a pleasant musical like the Bing Crosby/Martha Raye romp Waikiki Wedding come to mind? I wouldn’t think so, but this breezy bit of tropical escapism was indeed the highest grossing flick of 1937. I can see why, however. Bing Crosby is quite charismatic here (guess the smugness didn’t settle in until the ’40s), but the truly amazing thing is how Paramount was able to simulate a stunningly photographed, lush Hawaii populated with dozens of native extras on a Hollywood soundstage. The story is a big bowl of overly sweetened pineapple whip, with bland Shirley Ross as a beauty contest winner who is assigned to write a glowing account of her trip for the newspaper back home. Only the lady is having a miserable time — she and wacky, man-hungry pal Raye are ready to ship back home until charming Crosby is employed to change her impression of the islands and make her stay. There’s a subplot about a valuable, mystical pearl in there, too, but all that exposition takes a back seat to the evocative songs and atmosphere. The opening number in particular is a knockout. Something of a trifle, but amusing all the same. I’m glad I picked this DVD up at Big Lots, as part of a five-film Crosby Screen Legend set.

Flick Clique: February 21-26

Body Rock (1984). I’m always on the lookout for ridiculous movies that reflect a passing trend through a funhouse mirror. With that in mind, 1984’s Body Rock must be the Rosetta Stone of trendy youth-oriented movies gone horribly wrong. This opus stars meatheaded Lorenzo Lamas as Chilly, a New York City rapper/break dancer/graffiti artist whose fly moves are only matched by his oversized ambition. He comes under the wing of of sleazy promoter Ray Sharkey, who gives him a stage show at his nightclub. Chilly soon finds that success isn’t the same as keepin’ it real, however. This movie is bad in the best way, very watchable and with a stylized take on East Cost hip-hop culture executed so wrongheadedly it makes Breakin’ look like a documentary. Lamas is about as awful as you’d expect, but the miscasting extends to supporting roles and even bit parts (one of Lamas’ homies is a chubby dude with a mustache!). The soundtrack is pretty fun, and bad (no match for Breakin’, again) — with Lamas doing a slow ballad that counts as a jaw-dropping, moribund lowlight. The number below, with skeleton-costumed dancers under black light, sums up the kind of cynical “let’s copy what the kids get on MTV” visuals you can bet on:

poster_merrilyThe Cheat (1931) and Merrily We Go To Hell (1932). Two intriguing pre-Code melodramas recently issued on DVD (from Paramount, who really needs to open up their vaults a lot more). The Cheat has slightly more appeal to modern audiences due to Tallulah Bankhead in an early starring role. Bankhead plays a well-heeled wife who flirts with, then wrongs, a mysterious Chinese man (the Paul Muni-ish Irving Pichel). In the film’s most potent scene, psycho Pichel brands her in the shoulder. She then shoots Pichel in his shoulder, with her husband Harvey Stephens gallantly taking the rap for the crime. Admittedly the film is undone by a storyline that was hoary even done as a 1915 silent. Bankhead is okay if somewhat too stylized an actress. Many say that Bette Davis ripped off Bankhead’s style, but in reality it was a more modern refinement on what Tallulah was doing. The more subdued Merrily We Go To Hell is the better bet, an intelligent domestic drama with terrific performances from Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March. Sidney plays a reckless heiress who meets offbeat newspaperman March at a swanky party. Despite her family’s protests and his predilection for the bottle, she marries the man. Even as March descends further into an alcoholic haze, eventually getting his play produced (with an ex-flame in the lead, no less), Sylvia finds the strength to keep the marriage going. A typical “women’s picture” in many ways, but the dialogue is especially good and smart. The film also offers an opportunity to check out the work of director Dorothy Arzner. The many scenes of characters bonding/sharing reveals that Arzner had a special gift for conveying human closeness onscreen (I just wish she and other women of her time had done more films!).
Demolition Man (1993). A nostalgic favorite of Christopher’s, we decided to watch it (first time for me) after discussing the movie at Taco Bell. This film has got to be one of the oddest depictions of the future I’ve ever seen, but the film is ultimately undone by typical action movie stupidity. Sylvester Stallone stars as a 1990s L.A. cop who is cryogenically frozen, then re-animated when his nemesis Wesley Snipes goes on a crime spree in a peaceful and renamed San Angeles in the 2030s. The city of the future is a strange utopia filled with brain-dead citizens who revere old commercial jingles and think the aforementioned Taco Bell is haute cuisine. Among the cops aiding Stallone is Sandra Bullock as an eager recruit and history buff whose chief talent is misquoting 20th century turns of phrase (“You can take this job, and you can shovel it.”). This had a lot of potential to be a good popcorn flick, but the humor is overdone, the characters lack any back story of note and there are too many explosions ‘n crap. This definitely has the imprint of action schlockmeister Joel Silver. Certainly a concept that can and has been done well (see Total Recall), but this particular enterprise is just noisy, choppy and dull. Stallone is too old; Snipes is a shallow, laughing idiot. Sandra Bullock’s gee-whiz character is the one bright spot.
Gyspy Girl (1966). Always on the lookout for unknown/underappreciated gems to check out on Netflix streaming, I came across this British coming-of-age drama, an excellent vehicle for the teen Hayley Mills directed by her own father, John Mills. In a role miles away from her Disney vehicles, Hayley plays Brydie White, a slow-witted country girl who lives with her alcoholic ma in a tiny English village. The girl is an outcast in her town (due to a tragic accident a few years earlier), with only the children of the village understanding her ghoulish preoccupation with animal deaths. She finds a kindred spirit in handsome gypsy Ian McShane; the two bond against the judgmental adults around them. Rather slow moving at times, and many of the adult characters are poorly rendered archetypes, but worthwhile viewing all the same. Hayley Mills is great, and it was cool to find McShane looking attractive in an earlier role. I also enjoyed the British country scenery. The many scenes with Mills interacting with the youngsters in the cast are the highlights, however. A genuine sleeper — Netflix customers need to seek this out!
poster_joanJoan Rivers: A Piece Of Work (2010). As a longtime Joan Rivers fan (despite the fact that the woman’s face is approaching Jocelyn Wildenstein-scary levels of overwork), I was looking forward to last year’s acclaimed documentary on how the now 77 year-old comedy legend is doing. It was very interesting. I think the key word for her is “restless,” since this film finds her constantly on the move, questioning herself and her place in show biz, forever seeking ways for an older woman to stay relevant in that arena (really, though, The Apprentice?). Oddly enough, it doesn’t reveal a whole lot about Rivers that I didn’t already know. Only the appearance of a long-time assistant now grappling with a drug problem was a revelation. There are a lot of absorbing, revealing scenes, such as when Rivers does a charity meal delivery to a housebound, frail woman who was once a brilliant photographer. We also learn a lot about Rivers’ past, including her husband’s depression and suicide — although her notorious flop screenwriting/directorial debut Rabbit Test from 1978 is oddly never mentioned. She’s tenacious, for sure, but also insecure, overly pampered and too concerned with surface appearances vs. reality. From start to finish, I enjoyed this documentary… but strangely enough I ended up admiring Kathy Griffin (who appears among the chorus of famous fans here) a lot more for basically doing the same thing. The first season of Griffin’s My Life on the D-List reality show reveals much more about the toughness of struggling in show biz than this film attempts to convey.
Leaving (2009). Fantastic French marital drama is another notable non-English leading role for Kristin Scott Thomas (after her devastating turn in I’ve Loved You So Long). In this film, she plays a doctor’s wife who leads a comfortable upper middle class life in a with the couple’s two teen children. When the woman connects with a Spanish handyman (Sergi López) working on her well-appointed home, a friendly flirtation turns into a torrid affair. She decides to divorce her husband, but the man (a nicely intense Yvan Attal) will not let her go, even cutting off the family bank account when she decides to live with her lover. This was an absorbing film, with another winning performance by Scott-Thomas. I liked the varying emotions of her character as she gets further into the affair. The offbeat yet hunky López is a good match for her in the acting department, and the two share some realistic and tastefully depicted sex scenes (unthinkable in an American production). The story itself doesn’t cover any earth-shattering ground, but as far as domestic dramas go this is top notch stuff. Interesting to note how differently this situation plays in France (perhaps due to differing divorce laws?) than in the States.