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Tag Archives: John Wayne

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.

Weekly Mishmash: October 24-30

Art & Copy (Independent Lens, PBS). Intriguing documentary on the advertising industry, exploring various successful campaigns from the “creativity first” revolution of the ’60s through the media saturated landscape of today. This was kind of neat to watch (especially the clips from memorable old commercials), but frustrating as well. It only proves what I’ve known from my limited dealings with ad agency types — they’re a bunch of douchebags with inflated opinions of themselves. Awkwardly using an average-Joe billboard erector as a framing device, the filmmakers interview an impressive array of ad directors as they tell stories of their best known campaigns (Just Do It, Got Milk?, etc.). The film also displays statistics about things like how much money is spent annually on ads, and how many ads the average American sees in a day. They are merely stats, however, and the main issues of why we live in such an ad-saturated society are never adequately discussed. Mostly we see famous ad people crowing about their own achievements, which has the unintended result of making them look like prima donnas whose mothers complimented them on their crayon scribbles one too many times. Interesting subject, frustrating film.
His Private Secretary (1933). Poverty row comedy about a cocky rich kid who charms a minister’s daughter. By all means this is a routine film, chintzy and statically directed with little room for creativity. Its only distinctiveness lies in a young and unknown John Wayne headlining as the playboy. Despite the strange casting, he is very appealing — as is actress Evelyn Knapp as his sweetheart. Might be worth a peek for Wayne fans; I started losing interest in the story about halfway through this already slight (60 minutes) movie.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Inspired a rental after re-seeing the South Park episode in which Kyle, Stan and the other kids are traumatized after witnessing the rape of Indiana Jones by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. We both have to agree. What a load of overproduced, ludicrous crap this is. From the CGI gophers to the positioning of geeky Shia LeBouf as an action hero, this is one monumentally stupid decision after another. Not since Peter Jackson’s King Kong have I seen so much money thrown at the screen — and to what end? At least Kong had a solid story to fall back on, not so much this mishmash of aliens, Russian spies, and monumentally fake CGI set pieces. In its (tiny) defense, at least the film presents Harrison Ford/Indiana as a doddery old guy with some of the charm and appeal that made him an icon. I can get the comedy, but it’s used so often and so unsubtly (LeBouf swinging on vines, really?) that it throws off the tone of the entire film. The hyped return of Karen Allen’s Marion was a disappointment, with the character’s grinning la-di-da hippie disposition sharing little in common with the fiery Marion of old. Normally I love Cate Blanchett, but her villain has little gravity with a voice seemingly copied off Rocky and Bullwinkle‘s Natasha. The criticized “nuke the fridge” scene wasn’t so bad, but man oh man. What a crock.
poster_magobss35Magnificent Obsession (1935). Another film that I saw eons ago on the old American Movie Classics channel. I gave it another look after Criterion released it on DVD alongside Douglas Sirk’s better ’50s version. As far as soapy soaps go, this story is awfully preachy and doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the class/race dramas explored in Imitation of Life. It concerns newlywed Irene Dunne who returns from a cruise to find that her beloved surgeon husband has died of a heart attack. The machine that could have saved his life was used on a reckless young playboy (Robert Taylor) who tries to woo the nonplussed Dunne, then inadvertently causes her to go blind in an accident. In a flash, he becomes a Nobel prize winning brain surgeon for the sole reason of curing Dunne — under strict anonymity, of course. Only the best actors could make that hokum somewhat plausible; this version, although entertaining, fails on that level. I tend to like Irene Dunne better in comedic roles; here she has an extreme degree of haughtiness that even Norma Shearer couldn’t dream of attaining. Taylor is affable enough in the role that made him a ’30s matinee idol, but mostly I was distracted by his ginormous head and eye makeup. The characters’ behavior is also quite annoying; you might need an extra shoe to throw at the judgmental supporting characters played by Sara Haden and Betty Furness. Not much was changed for the ’53 remake with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, but at least that film has director Douglas Sirk’s visual elan to recommend it. Not so for the original. Incidentally, actress Joyce Compton supposedly has a bit part as a nurse (according to her IMDb listing, anyhow). She is actually not in the film.
The Outside Man (1973). Gritty little ’70s actioner with an odd cast that includes Ann-Margret, Angie Dickinson, Roy Scheider and The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s lovable ditz, Georgia Engel. In a unique France-meets-U.S. scenario, Jean Louis Trintignant plays a contract assassin sent to kill a crime kingpin in sunny, decadent Los Angeles. Something goes awry, however, and instead Tintignant finds himself on the run from another killer (Scheider, quiet and menacing). He gets help from a blowsy friend of a friend (Ann-Margret), but when when the time comes to depart he can’t find himself leaving loose ends behind. This was a flawed but very interesting and watchable time capsule that reminded me in places of The Long Goodbye. As in Goodbye, we got a kick out of the varied ’70s L.A. locales and the sun-baked noir mood certainly comes into play in both. This film never quite jells, however, despite quirky touches like Engel’s daffy, publicity hungry housewife (with Jackie Earle Haley as her son, no less). Oddly enough, she’s the best thing in the movie!
The Thing Called Love (1993). Genial, somewhat routine romantic comedy about a group of young aspiring songwriters/performers trying to make sense of their careers and relationships in Nashville, Tennessee. This was directed by Peter Bogdonavitch, whose films tend to be either pretty good or horrible, with a cast that included River Phoenix in one of his final roles and Sandra Bullock shortly before she attained A-list status. Samantha Mathis is a decent enough lead, but she can’t sing (realistic at first, ludicrous for the finale) and doesn’t have the right “country” tone for the part. I could say the same for Phoenix, who comes across as sulky and not quite the magnetic, misunderstood soul the film makes him out to be. Ironically, it is Sandra Bullock who fares the best as a pretty wannabe country music star who, deep in her heart, knows she’s merely pageant contestant material. She has the sweet authenticity that the leads lack. Iffy casting aside, I found this a sweetly watchable film.

Weekly Mishmash: August 22-28

dvd_clashofthetitansClash of the Titans (2010) and Repo Men (2010). Two DVD rentals that my spouse picked. As you can see, my spouse likes the special effects flicks. I like ’em, too, as long as the special effects are supported by a good story and decent enough performances — two things that Clash of the Titans and Repo Men sadly lack. Repo Men is the more promising of the two, with Jude Law laying on the charm as a near-future bounty hunter type whose job entitles him to reclaim artificial organs from people who are unable to pay for them. This film plays on the current health care and financial crises in the same way the far superior Children of Men envisioned a future where George W. Bush-era foreign policy ran amok. On the plus side, the movie benefits from good work from Law, Forest Whitaker and Liev Schreiber. As the film played on, however, it devolves into Matrix-esque chases and fights, ultimately becoming an icky and pointless exercise. The Clash of the Titans remake doesn’t aspire to such bold statements, which can be a great thing if handled the right way. I remember going to see the 1981 original with a bunch of Junior High pals at the local mall-plex and having a blast. With whiz-bang CGI and action scenes galore, the remake appeals to the same popcorn mindset but I found this one strangely hollow and uninviting. Sam Worthington is a bland lead and his military buzzcut distracts to no end, the effects are overwhelming (and in 3D, no less), and the film’s many fight scenes seem to never end. Oh, and it gets worse: the brief appearance of 1981’s mechanical owl is probably the lamest celluloid sop to nostalgia since they brought back the original spaceship design in 1998’s Lost In Space (only to blow it up seconds later).
Celine Dion — The Colour of My Love. Found this for 50 cents in the markdown bin at the local Half Price Books store and it seemed to whisper “buy me” in a vaguely Franco-Canadian accent. The disc was actually well worth the two quarters it cost. On the whole, this 1993 effort is more diverse and likable than Dion’s self-titled 1991 album and not quite as dated/goofy as her English language debut, Unison. Lush ballads predominate, as epitomized by megahit “The Power Of Love,” but I found myself drawn to the lesser known tracks. The fluffy Tara Kemp-ish workout “Misled” hit the dance charts and even the top 40, odd considering I don’t remember it at all. Another beat-heavy track, “Refuse To Dance,” is notable for having Dion’s voice effectively blended in with the instrumentation, creating a moody and disarmingly experimental sojourn in the album’s second half. I also downloaded this album’s non-U.S. “Just Walk Away,” a florid Latin style ballad which fits squarely in Eurovision Song Contest territory. Most of these tracks have the same personnel she always works with. The prolific Diane Warren contributed two of the better tracks, both sweet if overlong, overproduced and vamped up like crazy. “Next Plane Out” is a typical big ballad, but the one I really dig is the Motownish “No Living Without You.” Perhaps I love it so for its similarity to another cheeseball neo-soul record from that period, Charles & Eddie’s “Would I Lie To You.” Hmmm, wonder if I could find a used Charles & Eddie CD at Half Price Books?
God’s Country (1986). Charming, thought provoking documentary on the American heartland by French director Louis Malle. It’s 1979 and Malle focuses his camera on the diverse residents of Glencoe, Minnesota, following farm families, law enforcement, bank employees and jus’ folk as they ramble about their lives and hopes for the future. In the most poignant scenes, he visits a nursing home and impartially films residents sitting glassy eyed in a room while a TV blares away. Things then turn celebratory as the film chronicles a tacky wedding ceremony in which the bride, groom and wedding party go bar hopping along the town’s main thoroughfare. In a bittersweet coda, Malle revisits the town in 1985 as residents come to grips with the disappearing ways of life caused by Reaganomics. This was completely fascinating in a personal way, having reminded this viewer of the times my family took trips to visit relatives in Nebraska. Malle not only knows how to allow his subjects to open up to the camera, he also trains his lens on interesting/quirky details such as an elaborately coiffed woman working at a slaughterhouse. In one scene, he visits a drugstore as the manager proudly shows off his establishment’s “Gay Nineties” decor theme. The place was a total trip, but it also had a personal resonance since my late grandfather once managed a very similar drugstore in a small midwestern town. It made me nostalgic, then somewhat sad as the realization hits that these places have been replaced by Wal-Marts (just as the quiet family farm has been largely co-opted by Monsanto). Sobering and well worth a look.
poster_merrywidowThe Merry Widow (1925). Erich von Stroheim’s lush, long epic got a rare broadcast on Turner Classic Movies’ recent day long salute to John Gilbert. Although there were many Gilbert films from that day that piqued my interest, I ended up with this because I’ve always been curious about his Gilbert’s co-star, Mae Murray, and the extravagance of von Stroheim productions are always worth a look. Gilbert plays the prince of a mythical, quasi-European kingdom who is smitten with visiting dancer named Sally O’Hara (Murray). Though the two are in love, his family forbids him to marry a commoner. Extenuating circumstances caused by the prince’s weaselly cousin (Roy D’Arcy) force Sally to end up wedding a creepy old guy with a foot fetish (!) instead. The man drops dead on the wedding night and she becomes… The Merry Widow. This was a suitably overstuffed affair that seemed pretty typical of 1920s cinema — it’s overlong and the acting was too affected (especially from Murray). Despite weird touches like foot fetish man and a couple of blindfolded musicians, the story was too trite to carry such an overstuffed production. As far as von Stroheim epics go, I much prefer Greed but this one has a few things going for it. Gilbert is rather staid and bland, but Murray’s showiness as a performer is a hoot. When she laughs, it’s a lusty toss back of the head and convulsive body shakes. When she cries, she transforms herself into a life-sized wet hankie with puppy dog eyes. It’s method acting squared for our Mae.
Rio Bravo (1959). While I normally wouldn’t be attracted to a late period Western starring John Wayne, this particular one directed by Howard Hawks has such a great critical reputation that I had to check it out. It didn’t disappoint. Wayne plays the sheriff of a small Texan town who is keeping criminal Claude Akins in lockup. Akins’ brother and a bunch of other meanies are terrorizing the town trying to free the man, so Wayne enlists the help of a drunk but talented gunfighter (Dean Martin), an old coot (Walter Brennan) and a cocky teen (Ricky Nelson). This was conceived as Hawks’ answer to High Noon — but instead of wimpy Gary Cooper grovelling for help from the townspeople, here we have four flawed yet commanding men taking on a challenge in an adult, responsible way. Like many Hawks films, there’s also a strong female presence with Angie Dickinson as a traveling performer who has her eye on the Duke. Dickinson seems a bit modern for the part, but she’s alluring as all get out. Martin’s nuanced performance was a big surprise, and I enjoyed his odd duet with Nelson. The film is long, but made in such a casual, appealing way that one doesn’t notice it. I actually think it’s perfectly paced, building up to the exciting climactic gunfight.
Separate Lies (2005). IFC Channel recording. This was an intriguing but strangely unsatisfying domestic drama, written and directed by Julian Fellowes. The film concerns a well-heeled contemporary British couple played by Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson. An accident in their plush neighborhood kills their housekeeper’s husband, which triggers the unraveling of the marriage when suspicion falls on Watson and her secret lover (Rupert Everett, looking weirdly gaunt). The first thing I noticed about this film is the wonderful acting, which is top-notch. I also enjoyed the precise, photogenic interiors, whether it’s a country estate or Wilkinson’s slick office. The story is serviceable enough at first, then it delves heavily into the leads’ shifting feelings towards each other until it becomes an implausible morass. Fellowes took on a similar tact for his Oscar winning Gosford Park screenplay, using a mystery as a springboard to explore the complex relationships of its characters. That film worked brilliantly, but for some reason this one doesn’t jell and it winds up a well-intentioned, beautifully acted but inert film.

Weekly Mishmash: May 30-June 5

poster_hauntedHaunted Gold (1932). Haunted Gold is a lively little early b-movie Western starring a lean and green John Wayne. Actually it’s about three parts Western to one part Haunted House Movie, which is enough to make me enjoy it despite the silly plot and stilted acting. Wayne plays a man coming back to his childhood town to stake his claim on an abandoned gold mine, a spot that a gang of meanies and a lovely young woman (Sheila Terry) are vying for as well. Somehow the story also involves a creaky old house filled with assorted creeps and the regrettable stereotypical scared black guy (Blue Washington) who serves as the hero’s right hand man. At film’s climax, Wayne’s white horse “Duke” comes to the rescue doing something impressive even by celluloid animal prodigy standards. This was lots of fun, efficiently covering a lot of ground in just under an hour. Wayne was at an interesting stage where one can tell he’s not the greatest actor, but he has that indefinable “it” factor that the biggest movie stars possess. This was also an odd live action production by Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies producer Leon Schlesinger (check out the animated owls over the opening credits!).
Prince & The Revolution — Purple Rain. Since eMusic is adding Prince’s back catalog in stages, I decided to toss a spare nine credits their way for Purple Rain, arguably his most enduring work. I used to own this on vinyl as a teen. The album still sounds good with a excellent flow that doesn’t make the hit singles stick out, unlike other megahit albums of the day. The only tune I didn’t originally remember was “Computer Love,” a funky semi-instrumental. Several of the other non-hits are so good they could have been released as singles; the salacious “Darling Nikki” is Hendryx brought into the ’80s, and “The Beautiful Ones” is one of his best-ever ballads. Now I’m itching to get into the Purple One’s other stuff dating from his self-titled ’79 album up through the 1992 “unpronounceable symbol” album.
Swing It, Sailor! (1938). When I think of actor Wallace Ford, I don’t think comedian. I might think “only normal person in Freaks” or “hearty noir supporting character.” Nevertheless, the 50 comedy movie DVD pack we have contains no less than three comedies starring the doughy Ford. This forgettable maritime yuckfest is one of ’em. With Ford and Ray Mayer as two gobs tussling over a hard-edged blonde (Isabel Jewel), this film isn’t very distinctive but it’s a breezy enough way to kill an hour. What interested me the most was Mary Treen as the leading lady’s plain roommate. The versatile Ms. Treen was one of those “hey, I know that lady” comic actresses who seemingly appeared in everything produced by Hollywood from the ’30s to the ’70s. I remember her best as Kay, the dull woman who briefly replaced Alice as the family housekeeper in one Brady Bunch episode. It’s true, everything in my existence ultimately relates to The Brady Bunch.
The River (1951). Late period Jean Renoir film is pretty to look at, but ultimately undone with stock characters and situations. The film concerns a British family in colonial India, particularly the brood’s two blossoming daughters who become entranced by a dashing Army captain visiting their neighbor. This film is rightly considered one of the best examples of Technicolor photography, and in that respect it particularly shines in opening segments depicting India as a mystical rural paradise. When it comes to the plot and acting, however, this was a total misfire. I didn’t find anything compelling about the two girls and their petty arguments (granted, the narration was nice) and the way the drama plays out. Even the subject of death is treated with a disarming callousness in Renoir’s hands. The best thing I can say about this is that it’s not flat out horrible like Renoir’s follow-up, The Golden Coach, my vote for the worst film the otherwise peerless Criterion ever put out. As long as I’m on the subject, what’s your least favorite Criterion DVD?
The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Colorful and fun kiddie adventure from producer Alexander Korda. This is the Arabian Nights told with plushness and visual flair in stunning Technicolor. The special effects might seem cheesy to our jaded CGI overloaded eyes, but I think the cheesiness has its own appeal. The most laudable thing about this film is that it leaves the impression of having spared no expense, yet it never seems like it’s trying too hard. I enjoyed all the characters, especially Conrad Veidt’s menacing Jaffar and Sabu’s industrious thief Abu. Some scenes take on a heady, psychedelic quality, such as when Abu ventures into a massive Hindu temple to retrieve a magic crystal. As with The River, the Technicolor photography has that strange muted quality unique to British productions — dreamy, a little tacky but lovely all the same.