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Alias Nick Beal (1949)
The devil is in the details
A variation on the Faust theme, Thomas Mitchell plays an honest politician who is tempted with the state governorship if he follows the political advice given to him by a mysterious stranger who emerges from the fog (Milland). Among other things, Milland has the ability to predict, word for word, the exact dialogue that will occur between two people in a future conversation.?
It seamlessly blends political drama, noir and Val Lewton-esque psychological horror. Ray Midland's portrayal is restrained, without sacrificing any of Nick Beal's monstrous evil. The subtle, malevolent smile on Milland's face as Thomas Mitchell's Foster has his epiphany reveals that, perhaps, Nick Beal is truly omnipotent. He's thought of everything, and there's no escape for poor Foster. The screenplay by Jonathan Latimer is outstanding. When Nick lectures Foster that in politics, and life, there are no absolutes, just shades of gray, I can't help but think of Broadcast News and Albert Brooks' speech about the devil - "What do you think the devil's going to look like if he's around? ... Nobody is going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail!"??
The ending was a tad heavy-handed, but appropriate for the times. Audrey Totter was her usual terrific self. And George Macready is miles away from his sleazy character in Gilda. Director John Farrow, along with the production design, music by Franz Waxman and Lionel Lindon's chiaroscuro cinematography create a feeling of inescapable dread.
Too Big to Fail (2011)
Well crafted and well acted but makes a false idol
Specifically, Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulsen is painted as having a great big unselfish S on his chest. I hate to parrot everyone else, but please watch "The Big Short" to see that everybody had blood on their hands.
HBO had to make SOMEBODY a hero in this, a film, not a documentary, so they chose Paulsen. In their version Paulsen is the somewhat naive guy who understands economics but does not understand human greed. The mechanics of what happened is well described. The dangers of what could have happend is well described. And there are several monologues where somebody - as part of conversation in a team meeting - explains how the big banks and investment houses got into this mess and then how AIG, the bank that insures the insurers, got swept up into everything.
The end of the film indicates that the big banks, with all of that fed supplied cash, just parked it and refused to loan it out - they were not required to do so - and the economy went into a downward spiral with hundreds of thousands losing their jobs and mortgage foreclosure becoming an epidemic.
I'd say the film is OK for watching the basic mechanics of what went on, but understand it is a film and there has to be at least one hero - false or true - even if HBO is the producer and not Disney.
Death Scream (1975)
I'm writing this from a 40 year old memory...
...because this film was made early enough that watchable VHS copies do not exist, and apparently it was a ratings failure and had negative ratings reaction for a reason I didn't even know - that it was knowingly capitalizing on a real case in New York City from eleven years before - the Kitty Genovese case - where a woman is killed in the street outside of her apartment and despite her screams nobody comes to help. I didn't know about this case, being in kindergarten when the crime occurred in another part of the country, so I simply judged the movie on its own merits.
The film does open with exactly what happened to Kitty Genovese happening to a young woman walking home one night. She is killed in the street, and although many people hear her screams nobody comes to help. Only Nancy Walker's character calls the police. And she is ID'd by investigating detective Nick Rodriguez (Raul Julia) because she uses the word "reside", and this is unusual. He takes the investigation from there.
It was rather ground breaking in that it had a Hispanic detective in charge of the investigation, and not everybody in the cast is a who's who of 70s TV and movies. Raul Julia, the lead character, was not that well known at the time. And Nick Braeden, who is way down the list of billing, is now famous as being the lead for years on the soap opera "Young and the Restless".
The scene I remember most? Julia's character is coming home from a hard day of looking into this seemingly random killing, and he is unnerved by seeing his apartment front door ajar. He runs panicked into the apartment, calling his daughter's name, and is relieved to find that she is fine and there is not a nefarious reason for the door being open. He then gives her a stern warning about closing and locking the door. The age of innocence is over. This case has brought home to him that in the big city people will kill for apparently no reason, and that you should not expect anybody - even your neighbors - to intercede.
I remember it being a tense two hour journey and would recommend it if you can ever find a copy.
Bureau of Missing Persons (1933)
Pat O'Brien does James Cagney...
...In fact, Warner Brothers seemed very confused as to who they wanted to play the hothead with a (usually) good heart until the production code era. Then it was O'Brien's level headed guy to Cagney's hothead. But here O'Brien is still in hothead mode, as he is Butch, a detective assigned to NYC's Bureau of Missing Persons - the part of the NYPD that tracks down missing persons or sometimes their corpses - because Butch has gotten to be too rough as a regular detective. Hopefully here he will learn to use his head.
Lewis Stone takes a vacation from MGM to play Captain Webb, head of the bureau, with a Judge Hardy style of leadership. It's interesting to see his humane treatment of people who must be informed that the missing is deceased, and how he tries to restore the deliberately missing to their families with minimum embarrassment to the missing or the families. Here we get into precode territory a couple of times.
Bette Davis plays Norma Roberts, a woman who comes to the bureau looking for her missing husband. But to be married to the guy she knows ridiculously little about what he looks like and his habits when Butch questions her. What goes on here? Watch and find out.
This is a great Warner Bros. precode in the Warner Bros. tradition that has an unusual setting. With Ruth Donnelly as the bureau's secretary with mouth and attitude to spare as usual, Glenda Farrell with a cameo role as Butch's estranged wife who is always coming in to clean out his pockets (it was the Depression, a girl's got to eat, you know?), and Allen Jenkins as a bureau detective who for once plays a capable guy who is in the know.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
It seems like an opportunity lost
As a standalone film this was funny and nice to look at, but as a sequel it was terrible. Thus overall it was average. Wreck it Ralph is one of my favorite animated films - it managed to be an homage to retro gaming whilst telling a story about a misguided but loveable 'bad guy' finding out what really matters in life.
Ralph Breaks The Internet undoes all the good the first one did - Ralph is now an abusive (or should I say 'insecure') friend who has not one, but TWO cliche 'We were best friends and everything was perfect but now you did something that's upset me so I'm going to walk away and DON'T FOLLOW ME moments'. The film lacks any subtletly in dealing with its themes of toxic relationships (both personal and over the internet), and is far more comfortable in its amusing Internet references than it is in trying to make a statement.
There were so many missed opportunities to link it with the first film. For example, it is made clear that the allure of modern games is that they're constantly being updated and feel new. This was the perfect chance for the film to show that retro games, that always stay the same and live in our memory, have merit too. But nope, that didn't happen. To me, it feels like a Disney exec wanted to tell a story of the dangers / joys of the internet, and the dangers / joys of clingy friendships, but forced these messages into Wreck it Ralph where it just doesn't fit. It's used as a vehicle for this message, weaving its way around a bombardment of internet references in trying to do so.
I can understand why people enjoyed it - I laughed a lot during the first half, and one or two of the emotional moments were quite powerful. But in lacking any nuance or any reverence to the first film, I cannot recommend it to fans of the first.
The Grinch (2018)
The implementation of this film is scarier than Boris Karloff!...
... and for anybody not alive 53 years ago, he was the voice of the original animated Grinch.
I am a very big fan of the Grinch, both the original and the Jim Carrey version, and if you're expecting those qualities in the slightest you will be very disappointed. First off the Grinch is not even that mean. He loves his dog Max and is overly affectionate, constantly telling him "You can do it Max, believe in yourself!" It is 2018 so animal cruelty is out. This is like "baby Grinch" or something with that high-pitched millennial voice. Boris Karloff also has such a sinister sounding voice, something that works perfect for the Grinch character. I can't say that Benedict Cumberbatch has that same quality.
Secondly they didn't even stick to the script of the classic Grinch we all grew up with. In this film, Cindy Lou is the older child of three with a overworked single mother whose only wish is that her mother had it way easier. Because in this Grinch movie Betty Lou is a strong independent woman and she needs no no man. Finally the music of the movie was completely awful, not having one original song. Even after getting through the whole awful movie, you think to yourself - maybe just maybe I can hear one original "You're a mean one" at the credits .No, it's a weird rap song. So the only thing to do is run out of the movie theater and write this one off as a waste of money and, more importantly, time. If you're a Grinch fan don't, DON'T see this movie. The only thing you'll be doing is telling yourself "this couldn't get any worse", then be shocked as it gradually hits rock bottom.
I'll give it a three for at least getting the technical aspects of the movie correctly. And even then I pull it down one star because technical aspects are part of the Star War films, but should not be part of The Grinch. The simplicity of the original Chuck Jones illustrations of the 1966 cartoon is one of my favorite aspects of the original. Who needs a complicated background? Just make the background blue, or yellow, or pink, etc. Everything these days is CGI'd to death, to the point where the CGI isn't even impressive anymore, it's just boring.
Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)
I love Busby Berkeley BUT...
... this is not Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, or Footlight Parade. The story is downright disappointing. I realize that the story is not the main point of a musical, but still, the narrative and its execution here are inane. The reason is not that Warner Brothers or Berkeley or Warren and Dubin have lost their touch, but the Production Code put a dreary blanket of censorship over American films made after 1934 that was impossible to evade. Gloria Stuart, as the poor little rich girl being pushed into a loveless marriage with a middle aged millionaire with a goofy hobby, is lovely, but she just doesn't have the precode bite of the stunning Joan Blondell or the fascinating Ginger Rogers, nor is she the good girl shrouded in an air of mystery like Ruby Keeler.
There are only two decent Busby Berkeley numbers here. The first is "The Words are In My Heart", which has those interesting white pianos. To say that "Lullaby of Broadway", the second of two really interesting numbers here, is great, is an understatement. It combines eroticism, surrealism, and flat out psychedelicism to be one of the high points of the Hollywood musical. And like all of Berkeley's numbers, this is supposed to be a staged number but could only be done in film. How else do you transform the face of Winny Shaw into the island of Manhattan and back again? Not in the rest of his career, IMHO, will Busby Berkeley top this number. Without it this film would probably only be a 5/10. With "Lullaby of Broadway" it rises to a 7/10.
Age 13 (1955)
Addresses the beginnings of the juvenile delinquent problem
In 1955, this little short tries to get to the root of the emerging juvenile delinquent problem - in this case, a boy from a broken home, living in poverty compared to his peers and ashamed of his second hand clothes, and further isolated from society when his mother dies when he is just 13, leaving him with only a stepfather as family. The stepdad is not cruel but is not a warm and tender guy either. He shows all of his affection to his cat.
So slowly the boy rebels. At first he turns to theft to get the tools he needs to try and fix his mother's radio which stopped working when she died, somehow thinking that the two are tied together. When his stepfather sends all of his mother's old clothes to charity the boy puts the stepfather's cat in a railroad car (????) headed out of town as a kind of payback....I guess.
But school officials are watchful and get the boy the kind of emotional help he needs, and somehow the cat is in the household at the end of the short. I'm not sure - logistically - how THAT happened. This is one of the shorts Turner Classic Movies usually exhibits as part of TCM Underground, trying to show a piece of Americana that has long passed. At least it shows that, even in the idealized 50s, not everything was perfect and carefree for everybody.
The Relaxed Wife (1957)
Watch it for the history, not the entertainment value
This short is basically one of the first pharmaceutical commercials - a long one. In it there is the narrative of the tense husband plagued by insomnia and his "relaxed wife" who tries to teach him how to let go of his mental and emotional nervousness so he can sleep. She has good basic information - relaxation exercises, a warm drink, a hot bath, basically a summing up of "let the day's own troubles be sufficient". In other words, don't worry about what hasn't happened yet.
What is buried among all of the practical natural information is a statement that some people STILL can't relax using these techniques and so doctors have started prescribing "ataraxic" medicine to such people so that they can relax and thus think. It is amusing to view such an infomercial 60 years after the fact since people now know that such medicines are very addictive. At the time this was made these drugs were considered a great step forward in medicine!
Plus, have you ever seen people so overdressed for bedtime? The husband is trying to sleep in his robe and the wife's robe was actually what I thought was a rather fancy dress, complete with the poodle skirt of the time. Worth it for the history of it all, not for what it was intended to be in 1957.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Probably one of my favorite Marvel films
This Spider-Man movie is the first Spider-Man movie in the Marvel canon. The prior two Spider-Man franchises are irrelevant to this series. Spider-Man, introduced in Captain America: Civil War, is part of the final phase of the Marvel Universe leading up to Avengers: The Infinity War. Marvel wisely opted to skip the origin story of Spider-Man and instead, framed this film to be more of a coming of age tale for Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his quest to become part of the Avengers. Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is tasked with taking Peter under his wing. Of course, Peter only sees the glory of being a superhero and ends up taking on situations that are too big for him to handle on his own. He has to be bailed out by Iron Man on a couple different occasions. Peter seems to think that wearing the suit with all of its gadgets and fancy technology will bring him the tools he needs to be like idols Iron Man and Captain America--not realizing that there is much more too it than just fancy tools. One very poignant moment has Peter telling Tony that he is "nothing without the (spider-Man) suit." To which Tony responds very bluntly, "then you don't deserve to wear the suit." Tony is waiting for Peter to show something emotionally and mentally that proves to Tony and the rest of the Avengers that he has what it takes to be a viable member of the team.
Much of the film involves Peter trying to figure out what it means to be Spider-Man. It's more than just foiling bank robberies by wrapping people up in his web. He's also trying to figure out who he is. Feeling like he's wasting his time in high school, he struggles to make friends and to fit in with his peers. He faces many of the normal issues that teenagers - especially ones that are unique- face such as bullying, crushing on a girl who seems out of his league, trying to juggle academics with outside commitments, and so on.
Michael Keaton portrays "Vulture," the villain whom Peter encounters. Vulture is somewhat sympathetic as he seems more like someone who always gets the short end of the stick and is just trying to get a piece of the pie. But of course, he takes it too far.
Others in the cast involve: Marisa Tomei as Peter Parker's Aunt May; Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's assistant/girlfriend; Chris Evans reprises his role as Captain America appearing in educational PSA videos that Peter ends up watching during school; John Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan, head of security for the Avengers; and Disney star Zendaya plays one of Peter's classmates.
The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987)
There are bad movies, and then there are the Garbage Pail Kids
I can make a solid case on it being the worst I've seen because at least other
movies can turn into "So bad it's good" or "So bad it's hilariously bad" or have multiple features that generate enjoyment. This movie had Anthony Newley. That's it. It encompasses the worst of the 80s, complete with unlikable characters, repulsive aliens who move their mouths with minimal effort, repetitive gross-out gags, the antithesis of warmth, joy, empathy or entertainment and one of the worst original songs spawned by rejects of Satan's orchestra.
A Talking Cat!?! (2013)
This film makes The Emoji Movie look like The Breakfast Club!
This is truly one of the worst films I have ever seen. Other reviewers' inspired rants motivated me to watch it. Some said it was good for authoring your own Rifftrax while intoxicated. Another said it should be used as a method of interrogating dangerous criminals. I think the latter suggestion would be considered inhumane by the UN or anybody else for that matter. The film does not have a bad idea - have a wandering cat with magical powers come into the lives of two families who are unaware of the existence of one another but where each member of one family could help a member of the other. The problem was in the execution.
First there is the cat, as in the voice of the cat - Eric Roberts. How far he has fallen since "Runaway Train". But that seems to be a curse with that movie. After all, Jon Voight is responsible for the "Baby Geniuses" movies. Eric's voice sounds like that of a drunk aged hippie, and it just does not jive with the voice of a cute little animal in a family film. Then there is the acting. Except for Johnny Whitaker, the cast is anonymous, and their acting will keep them that way. But then there is the writing, which isn't exactly Shakespeare and mainly just consists of filler phrases.
The editing is truly puzzling. The plot is so thin that scenes of nature - that I assumed were close to the households involved - heavily pad the film. The location of this film seems to be the Pacific Northwest or maybe the canyons of California, yet some of the padding scenes seem to be a tropical lagoon complete with palm trees! Even the trees outside of one household keep changing type and season. One time the trees are deciduous and leafless, the next time they are palm trees (to match the lagoon?) and then there are NO trees! Finally, there is the score, which mainly consists of one goofy little tune that is just repeated throughout the film. But at one point, when the adult members of the household meet for the first time, for some reason the score transitions to "La Cucaracha". It is very distracting.
There is one LOL moment in the entire film, and the only reason I have a spoiler warning. There is what is supposed to be a poignant moment towards the end where the two families unite over the cat being hit by a car and what might be his imminent demise. We are told that the vet has been there and done what he can for the cat. The families enter a bedroom and there is the cat, just laying unattended on the bed, looking completely fine and normal except a bandage has been tied around his head to make him look like he is Whistler's Mother! It completely detracts from what is supposed to be a serious moment and makes you wonder why the characters do not track down this so-called vet and find out if he studied veterinary medicine by correspondence.
Too late to make a long review short, this is just a sloppy effort that results in a film that is too dull for kids and too inane for adults. Avoid at all costs.
Flowers of Darkness (1972)
Back when people thought the drug war was worth fighting...
...and it is interesting to see how much things have changed in 46 years. This was narrated by - of all people - Paul Newman. Some of the material is factual - how heroin gets into the country, its history,etc. And some of it may have been true in 1972 - that most addicts were, at that time, from the inner cities. But these facts are certainly not true today. The opioid addiction problem has, in turn, made heroin a problem in such places as rural Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky - places where middle class jobs have fled and left people feeling desperate and with no options and wanting an escape from reality.
It does a few things that were probably viewed as progressive for the time, such as recommend treatment for addicts rather than just locking them up, the value of a community for ex-users that is similar to AA for alcoholics, and the value of studying the brain activity of addicts to get to the underlying cause of addiction.
It is mainly of historical value at this point in time.
Lots of the what, when, and where but none of the why...
... and maybe I shouldn't be hard on Frontline for not having any "whys". After all this episode is titled "Documenting Hate", and it does give us the facts. Pro-Publica's A.C. Thompson travels about the country developing the M.O of a dangerous ( is there any other kind?) neo-Nazi group named Atomwaffen that began operating in Tampa, Florida in 2015. Atomwaffen is a group of 60-200 Nazis that believe in operating entirely underground because they reached the conclusion that to parade around in the light of day just gets you fired from your job, put on an FBI watch list, and makes it harder to perpetrate terrorist acts, which is what they are really all about.
Some hard facts that Thompson uncovered in his reporting - they recruit heavily from ex-military. This is not to say that ex-military members are ripe for Nazi recruitment, just that Atomwaffen has several ex military in their small ranks because the group values the skills that these former soldiers have. Also, they are plotting largely "lone wolf" terrorist acts targeting such things as nuclear power facilities and synagogues. They really have no leader, but they are known to admire neo-Nazi James Mason, who is in fact an elderly guy working at a retail store trying to get by . On the outside he seems quite ordinary. Mason had a long term correspondence with Charles Manson and greatly admired him.
An interesting factoid - recruitment for white supremacist groups usually increases immediately following a war. How ironic that quite a few leaders of the neo Nazi movement returned to the USA from fighting Nazis to become Nazis themselves!
Now if the purpose of this episode was to raise the call for alarm, I think it did that. But still no why. Why do these American neo-Nazis see Jews as the enemy? That has never been explained anywhere such that I understand. It's easier (a little) to understand people failing in life and wanting to blame anybody - people of color and of different faiths - anything but themselves. But why is it always the Jews that they hate? Maybe I'd worry about myself if I ever DID actually understand this.
I'd recommend this episode. It is eye opening on many levels.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)
The sins of the father
When the Bible talks about the sins of the father being visited on the children to the third and fourth generation, that is probably not God being vindictive so much as it is a statement of fact, and it certainly applies here, at least to the second generation.
Jane Fonda is a little girl lost. She accomplished a lot in life for a little girl lost, and made one - even by her admission now - big mistake in her visit to Hanoi. My dad called her "Hanoi Jane" up until his death earlier this year, and he was 92 and didn't even fight in Vietnam. It is telling that the acts of her life are named after other people - Henry, Vadim, Tom, Ted - I didn't see the fifth act named. Even now, at eighty, Jane Fonda seems like a person in search of herself.
Let's start at the first act, the root of all of her problems - Henry - as in Henry Fonda, her father. She said he was distant, without emotion, that she felt she always had to act like they were the perfect family even though dad was absent emotionally and could only show emotion in terms of a role in a film and mom was continually depressed at least in part because dad was having affairs with much younger women.
So Jane Fonda grows up pretty much without a personality. Even her first acting teacher admitted to her that when he first met her he had never met such a conventional and boring young woman. But she had acting talent - so much talent that she won two Best Actress Oscars while dad was waiting to win his first Best Actor Oscar.
I just couldn't stop being impressed by the irony of her life. Growing up as she did, the personalities of those around her were impressed strongly upon her own, this being particularly true of her first two husbands and of Simone Signoret, a famous French actress that she befriended while married to Roger Vadim. Also, her children now complain about some of the same things that she complained about concerning her dad. Her son by Tom Hayden, Troy, said that they lived in communal housing, that their vacations were wherever his parents were doing protests or events, that he took a backseat to their activism. Jane herself said she would look into the eyes of her daughter by Roger Vadim when she was a toddler and she would see her looking at her as though asking "Why don't you check in? Where are you emotionally?". The curse of Hank Fonda.
This is an encyclopedic work by HBO on Fonda, with her doing the bulk of the talking. If you want to learn about a subject, after all, first ask the subject!
Just one more thing. The documentary opens on Richard Nixon, in one of his famous tapes, talking in 1971 about "What is wrong with Jane Fonda?" and how Henry Fonda seems like such a nice man. What is up with a guy, an American President, who documents every word he ever said on tape, tells everybody that there are tapes, and then dares the courts to take them? A subject for another time and another documentary.
Man Made Monster (1941)
One of the best of the Universal 1940s horror flicks...
... moving rapidly along at just under an hour. Lon Chaney stars as sideshow entertainer whose act features him working with electricity. When he is the only survivor of a bus crash where the other passengers are electrocuted, scientist Samuel S. Hinds invites him to participate in a few experiments to determine his immunity to electricity. So far so good. Hinds has an associate, played by Lionel Atwill. Now you know something will go wrong. Atwill has the idea that he can create a species of beings powered by electricity, and Chaney is his perfect subject. Pretty soon Chaney is glowing like Chernobyl and kills Hinds. Chaney is sentenced to die in the electric chair, but the execution does not go as planned.
This is my favorite Chaney film. He gives a very relaxed performance early on as just a simple, likable, trusting soul, before the stuff hits the fan. Atwill, as usual, is superb as a nutjob, and the supporting cast is fine as well. A bonus is Hans J. Salter's score, which features his themes that were used over and over in many other Universal films. There is also a very touching relationship between Chaney and Hinds' dog, which runs throughout the film. Highly recommended.
The Mummy (2017)
What a dumpster fire of a film!
This is no real CGI extravaganza with bombastic effects, and it has no final battle. But at the same time it's not a dark somber thriller on the verge of horror, and also it's not really an action-adventure with funny quips. It's also not a low-mid budget monster hunting action-thriller.
This movie is a rushed Frankenstein monster, you can clearly see that. It starts with an action-adventure vibe with jokes and snarky characters, then it suddenly turns into a pg-13 horror-thriller and then to a monster horror then into a disaster movie and then into some kind of dark drama but then comes back into the same beginning with jokes and quips. I can easily imagine producers telling the writers "Just make it happen, the charts say people want this, this and this! Don't worry about it, they will eat it up."
The problem with this movie (goes for all similar ones) is that it is supposed to be the first movie in a Cinematic Universe. But! They do things in a way much different from Marvel. They want to create what Marvel created, but Marvel made movies which could stand on their own. You could basically start to watch Iron-Man 2 and you wouldn't really feel like you do not understand it at all. Or even Iron-Man 3 (which is after Avengers!).
But going into this movie, you are force fed that this is a cinematic universe. You are introduced to so many characters which are obviously supposed to have bigger story arcs in later movies, and in all of that cinematic universe introduction, there is some random Mummy plot thrown into the mix, so that something could hold all of these loose ends together. There are just too many unanswered questions, and too many seemingly random characters. It feels like you are already watching some later movie, maybe the 5th one in this whole cinematic universe, and this one just happens to have a mummy in it.
Caution: Do not turn this film in to a drinking game where you take a shot every time you miss Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. You'll be dead in twenty minutes. I give this film three points for technical competence and for Sofia Boutella as an awesome female mummy.
The Four Feathers (1929)
Notice the changing fortune of one member of the cast...
.. that cast member being William Powell. I'll get to that later This is the tale, remade in 1939 and in sound, of four friends in the British army, friends from childhood. Richard Arlen has the starring role here as Lt. Harry Faversham. Always brought up to feel that cowardice is the worst character trait one can display, Harry grows up in fear of - well - fear! So when he gets notice that his regiment is being sent to the Sudan, he tries to pretend he didn't get that notice and has just coincidentally decided to resign. He threw his notice into the fire but didn't notice the fire isn't burning. His three friends see the notice and deem him a coward. They send him three feathers as a sign of their disgust. Harry's fiancee, Ethnee (Fay Wray), also disapproves and gives him a fourth feather. Harry's father, on his deathbed, advises Harry to kill himself!
So now Harry sets out to the Sudan as a civilian, determined to make his former friends take their feathers back. Fortunately for Harry, the British army has been extremely incompetent and is under siege by the locals. So here is his chance to redeem himself and rescue his friends! The plot takes it from there!
Now back to William Powell. Throughout his tenure at Paramount, Powell had been either playing the buffoon ("Forgotten Faces") or a villain ("Feel My Pulse"). But a funny thing happened just before this film was made - Powell made a couple of talking films. And the public discovered he had quite a distinguished voice. Thus in this, his last silent film, Paramount gave his character some dignity for a change. This film is worth studying if only for that. In fact, in five years, Powell will be the only major male member of the cast who still has a notable film career. Arlen had a find speaking voice, but he was one of many casualties of the talkies. Clive Brook had an autocratic British accent, and this just did not mesh with the roles and the image he had in silents. Plus he - like many Hollywood stars in the 30s - had numerous threats made concerning the kidnapping of his children. Because of these threats he and his wife and children moved back to England in 1936.
In summary, this is a rousing adventure film and one of the last silent films Paramount made and is very much worth seeking out.
Pitcairn Island Today (1935)
Interesting but crowded by the production code preachiness
The American production code, instituted in 1934, dealt with lots of things besides sex in motion pictures. It didn't allow men of the cloth to be portrayed negatively, nor business men to appear greedy, nor did it allow the glorification of armed rebellion. So, besides prudishness, there must have been more than just a little fear during this stage of the Great Depression that the starving American people might start another revolution.
"Mutiny on the Bounty" did not really paint the idea of rebellion in a positive light, but it did paint British naval justice in a rather harsh light. Men who didn't rebel and returned to England were tried for treason and the actual mutineers sailed away to Pitcairn Island, never to face any judicial repercussions for their acts.
Too late to make a long story short, maybe that is why this interesting and informative little short about Pitcairn Island in 1935 gets so preachy - to make up for the rather libertine message of MOTB. It talks about how the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island are all descendants of the mutineers and their islander wives. Thus you have things like one interesting wedding announcement that says "Mr. X Christian will be married to Miss Y Christian on Saturday. Let anybody who has reason why these two should not be wed report to the registry office." It shows one girl getting water from a well and mentions that the vase she is using is actually from the Bounty itself.
Then it oddly starts going into the ill effects that all of the inbreeding has had on the descendents of the mutineers and somehow tries to make this the "sins of the fathers", talking about "their evil deed" of mutiny. Funny how no mention is made of the cruelty of Captain Bligh who brought on their rebellion.
Finally it mentions how Mr. Christian, leader of the mutineers spent his final years sullen, alone, and unhappy. Hey, with half of the islanders seemingly named "Christian" he couldn't have been THAT unhappy or alone! I'd recommend this short. Just try to ignore the preaching and pay attention to the actual facts revealed.
The Post (2017)
A lazy effort by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg, with Jeff Skoll's activist Participant Media bankrolling his projects, has been on a kick for sentimental "Great Progressive Moments in History" epics with Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. However, this has to be his least emotionally invested project since "The Terminal". The trailer for this film just screamed "I'm making this for the Oscars" with its main theme
of freedom speech from almost 50 years ago made in an era when we once again have a president and press embattled and starring two - count em -
multiple Oscar winners. But then Speilberg gets shut out at the Oscars. He gets a Best Picture nomination nod only because there are ten slots available. Make it nine and this would likely not have made the cut.
So I watch the film and my worse suspicions are validated. Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post. The whole film has to do with the question - to print or not to print the information derived from the Pentagon Papers, government documents that show that from the 1950s the American government knew they could not win in Vietnam but continued to send American young men out to die in vain. But there is an injunction against the New York Times for publishing this same information, and the case is headed to the Supreme Court in a week. But the story gets muddled between two issues - first, the screenplay keeps getting off track with the female empowerment storyof Katharine Graham, a woman to the manor born who never had to work or worry a day in her life until her husband died and she was left the titular head of the Post. She doesn't quite know how to handle the old white male investors who talk down to her or the decisions that are now hers to make. Second, what EXACTLY is Tom Hanks doing with this role? Is he trying to be Ben Bradlee or is he trying to portray Jason Robards as Ben Bradleee with that obviously fake gravelly voice and pot belly? Instead he seems to be doing a killer Lou Grant.
"The Post" does manage to have some nice tense newsroom scenes, some legal decision suspense as everyone is reminded just how vindictive Richard Nixon can be, but all of the other stuff I mentioned overrides it. Oh, and is there anything more dramatic than the rolling of an old time newspaper press? But just how old time is this film trying to go? "All The President's Men" was set the year after this film is set - 1971 -yet this Washington Post newsroom looks like something out of 1940's "His Girl Friday" with the old Royal typewriters, dingy walls, and poor lighting. And you'd think that the director of "Lincoln" could capture the national confusion and outrage when the public first discovered the government had been lying to them, but no, other than a few protesters outside of the Supreme Court - zip, zilch, nada. The Judd Apatow comedy film "Anchorman" did a better job of depicting public outrage when Ron Burgundy accidentally profanes San Diego's name.
Oh, and the punchline - the final scene is Nixon raving against the Washington Post as a security guard stumbles into the break in at the DNC one year before it actually happened. Since this is reminiscent of the same scene in Forrest Gump, also starring Hanks, is it time for a face palm or applause at the anachronistic irony of the situation? Mildly recommended because, hey, who doesn't love Tom Hanks? Just too bad that nobody showed up to direct the film. An editor would have helped too.
The Great American Mug (1945)
A look back at a look back
The Passing Parade "one reel" ( about ten minutes) entries by John Nesbitt were often nostalgic in their nature, and this one is no exception. It talks about the traditional American barber shop. The short describes it as a place where men can bond over the races, sporting events, and off color traveling salesmen stories. It also talks about the different tonics and contraptions that the barbers used to grow hair back. They don't work - they never worked - but hope springs eternal.
Then Nesbitt goes back to the turn of the century to look at the barber shop when it first opened. His point is that although the hair styles have changed, that from the beginning it was a place where men could bond - a sanctuary from women. He does talk about unique customs of the early 20th century barber shops, such as each customer having their own mug stored in the shop, and all of the different and weirdly named cigarettes for sale there.
This short is interesting today because of the fact that barber shops are passe and largely have been replaced by styling salons for men. These places draw a more affluent clientele and offer such things as manicures and facials,. They have a sleek contemporary decor, and they are not conducive to "hanging out".
So this short that was ironically meant to show how nothing ever really changes in male bonding has become a curio and shows just how much things really have changed. As the middle class hollows out and the working class continues to become too poor for businesses to care about, there are fewer places for people to come together in an informal setting and form strong bonds in the community. An odd factoid? The African American barber shop continues to thrive.
Do watch this short if you get the chance, because it is sociologically fascinating.
Traveling Saleslady (1935)
A breath of fresh air ...
... among the usual constrained unfunny comedies of the early production code era. Angela Twitchell (Joan Blondell) is the only child and go-getter daughter of toothpaste tycoon Rufus Twitchell (Grant Mitchell). The problem is, Mr. Twitchell won't let Angela go get anything. He has prehistoric ideas about women being too emotionally unstable and just not smart enough to be involved in business of any kind.
Angela meets up with an ex-bootlegger who has discovered how to get the flavor of his various bootleg formulas into toothpaste, but has been futile at his efforts to get Mr. Twitchell to talk to him - Elmer, played by Hugh Herbert. So Angela decides to get back at dad and take Elmer to dad's competitor. She tells the competitor that she will "rent" Elmer's formulas and labor to him for one year, providing she is allowed to be on the sales staff and get a percentage of her sales as income. The competitor agrees.
So Angela is out on the road, in competition with Pat O'Connor (William Gargan), representing Twitchell, who seemed like a big sleaze bag to me at first. For example, Angela gets no consideration from the first sales call she makes, which is on Glenda Farrell playing Claudette the buyer for a drugstore concern. O'Connor is leading Claudette on and thus Claudette only deals in Twitchell products. O'Connor is there when Angela strikes out, and is condescending and arrogant to her, amused by the idea of a saleslady. But he is not amused long. The rest of the picture is basically a battle of wits between Angela as a figurative Bugs Bunny and O'Connor as a figurative Daffy Duck. And we all know how cartoons go that have those two in them. A rare feminist situation in 1935 American films, compounded by the fact that O'Connor does not know Angela's true identity.
Hugh Herbert is portioned out in small doses, and that makes him work in this film as too much of his typical confused and inane act can get old fast. The double entendres don't come fast and furious as they would have in the precode era, but a few do get through if you listen carefully enough. Even our two feminist characters in this film show a bit of prejudice. Before their first meeting - Angela as saleslady and Claudette as the head of buying for her drugstore - both women assume the other is a man and are putting on their face assuming that will help them with the man they are assuming they will be dealing with.
And who can't help like a film that shows the sales route of the two rival toothpaste salespersons as lines of toothpaste meandering across a map of the U.S? Highly recommended.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
This film is loosely based on David Bowie...
... on the cusp of stardom in the early 1970s with his "Ziggy Stardust" album and persona (the title comes from a Bowie song of that period). In fact, Bowie was approached, but he then had plans of making his own movie about this time, and demurred. He also did not allow the use of his music for this film.
So a somewhat fictionalized account was used. It is told in flashback, when newspaper writer played by Christian Bale has to write an article about a sensational death of a rock star, which turned out to have been staged and fraudulent. The rock star is a Ziggy-like androgynous glam-rock star, played by Jonathan Rhys Myers. Bale's writer has ambivalent feelings about the assignment, behaving a bit like a clumsy teenager at the time, attracted to this glam rock movement and struggling with his sexuality. Ewan McGregor plays another rock star who is a pastiche of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger. Toni Collette plays an Angela Bowie type character, who helps fill in the gaps of the story of her husband.
The British glam-rock scene seems to have been well-captured, with all the purported decadence of the stars. Classic songs of the period by the likes of T.Rex, Slade, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Cockney Rebel make up for the lack of Bowie songs. Highly recommended.
The Land Unknown (1957)
Tolerably amusing low budget time passer
This is a Universal low, low budget sci-fi movie modeled after "The Lost World".
Naval classes are being held before the next expedition to the South Pole. Harold Alan Roberts (Mahoney) will be in command, and reporter Margaret Hathaway (Smith) will be tagging along with two other crew members. They reach the South Pole, but then their helicopter crashes into a subterranean valley, still tropical in climate, with dinosaurs from the Mesozoic Era (according to the film). It follows a predictable path from here. The acting varies from boringly bad (Mahoney) to amusingly bad (Smith).
The movie is full of mistakes. Watch for:
The blown takes that made it into the finished film. Apparently the actors forgetting what mode of transportation they used wasn't deemed important enough to reshoot or the goofs weren't noticed.
There is also the giant iguana's costumes being ripped in their initial fight, the zipper running down the Tyrannosaurus Rex's costume, brooms disguised as oars, and the tiny set disguised as a forest, complete with lagoon. But without all of these mistakes this film would just be a bore.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
As an engineer, one thing has always bothered me...
... and that is, how CAN a house probably constructed just to building code but not much above support the weight of a fifty foot woman, even if she is perfectly still, without collapsing?
This is still a fun film 60 years after it was made. I'm sure it wasn't even supposed to be overtly scary even when it was made. You hiss at the villains - the cheating husband and his girlfriend - and you cheer when they get theirs. And it's not what they think is going to be theirs either.
The film revolves around a wealthy woman, Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes), who was apparently a well adjusted person until she married Harry. Harry neglects her, cheats on her with other women, and now has settled on one woman in particular. In the process Nancy has hit the bottle to the point where she had to be committed for awhile. And now her hubby Harry and his new cutie are thinking about pushing her over the edge and back in the asylum so they can spend her fifty million. That is like Jeff Bezos rich back in 1958. Nancy may be helping them out, because after driving into the desert one night she sees a UFO and a gigantic man who is very interested in her diamond necklace. The police investigate Nancy's claims because she does pay most of the taxes around town, but find nothing. Of course they think she is just starting to go around the bend again.
Nancy goes out in the desert again later, this time with Harry in tow, and she finds the satellite and the giant alien. Harry does at first - surprisingly - try to rescue Nancy, but then he peels off in their car and saves himself. Aware of how bad it will look if Nancy was seen to leave in a car with him never to return, Harry goes home and packs a bag - with all of thee pairs of underwear in it! . Nancy's loyal butler and Harry get into a heated argument over what happened to Nancy and - believe it or not - a huge tussle over the almost empty suitcase! Harry's head must be an empty suitcase to have come back home for this! Nancy does return, minus the diamond necklace, but when she begins to grow to enormous proportions everybody forgets about Harry as a suspect and tries to find a scientific reason for her condition.
So this film is great - like so many of the Allied Artists late 50s early 60s sci fi/horror - for a number of reasons. It sits at an interesting place in history. The space age was beginning, we were beginning to wonder what the long term effects of radiation would be on people, and beginning to think about space travel and possible life on other planets. Women's lib was around the corner, and Nancy growing 50 feet tall could be seen as a sign of female empowerment. Darryl Hannah made a tongue in cheek remake in the 90s and pretty much said that was what the film was about.
Or maybe this thing is just an unapologetic low budget blast. First there is the town deputy. He is bribable and actually thinks he has a chance with the gals down at the local bar. He makes Barney Fife look like - well - Andy Griffith! There is the Archer "mansion". It actually looks like the Leave it to Beaver home gone New Mexico. You just can't put a couple of formal portraits of anonymous people up in a 1950s post war tract home and have it breathe opulence. Then there is Nancy's loyal servant who looks like a cross between a beardless Abraham Lincoln and Boris Karloff. Finally, that Harry is a bit of a dope. His new sweetie that he sounds like he wants to make the second Mrs. Archer is bad news. She has killer instincts and admits her hobby is spending money. What makes him think that once the first Mrs. Archer is out of the way she won't find some way to get that money all to herself?
Now let's talk about special effects and the production code. Somehow a bedroom that is only 20 x 20 is big enough to hold a fifty foot woman - for awhile. The giant alien in the desert is translucent, but giant Nancy is not. And you have to love the fact that when the 50 foot Mrs. Archer does emerge from her house she is modestly appareled...in.. what exactly??? That is never explained, but I don't think it was the work of the Army Corp of Engineers. But the mark of quality has got to be the giant paper mache hand - complete with nail polish - that is supposed to be Nancy's hand when she is grasping for things in her gigantic state.
I'd recommend this one to anybody who likes the old 50s and early 60s scifi. Maybe Allied Artists was right to abandon quality projects and go back to the low budget films that were their stock and trade. That had the secondary side effect of causing Walter Mirisch to leave and form his own production company, and the rest was history and a bunch of Oscars.