Monday, January 19, 2015
I saw 112 2014 releases at the theater or on DVD. Despite my current freelance employment status, it's not as expensive as it sounds, as a first-run multiplex just minutes away from me offers $4.50 ticket prices until 6 pm. and $7 in the evenings. I'm also fortunate to have a large number of second-run theaters within a reasonable drive time at $4 a ticket with unlimited refills on any size soda and popcorn. If you don't mind waiting a bit, there's a third run theater chain in nearby Bloomingdale that offers tickets for $1.75 ($1 on Tuesdays). Independent, foreign and art films are shown at the wonderful twice monthly After Hours Film Society at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, which is close enough for me to walk to in the nice weather.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for much of this year's offering, going to the movies remains a life-long habit and one I don't see quitting any time soon, but I must admit my enthusiasm is waning.
I know I've griped about this before, but I'm rarely out and out entertained at the movies anymore. Most of the comedies are cringe-worthy, to say the least, generating more uncomfortable groans at the gross-out humor on display than any wit or the sense in how to build a gag. I know the days of Lubitsch and Leo McCarey are over, but does it have to be that way?
I remember leaving a packed theater following a week night showing of VICTOR/VICTORIA (1983) and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) and it seemed as if everyone, strangers all, left the theater nodding happily to each other, grinning ear to ear, like we we were all new best friends who had just enjoyed the world's greatest dinner party. It's been years since I've experienced that coming out of a new movie. That used to be a regular occurrence, but it rarely happens anymore.
Several of the year's biggest hits left me unimpressed. I enjoyed GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY up to a point, but a final battle scene that seemed to go on for ages put it on the debit side for me.
The third and final Hobbit movie was probably the most tolerable of the three, but that's like being the tallest of three Hobbits. In the long run, it really doesn't mean anything. (The things I see as a Christopher Lee completist. Sigh).
TO KILL A MOCKINGJAY: THE HUNGER GAMES III or whatever this snoozefest is called, bored me to tears. It could be talkiest blockbuster I've ever seen. Now talk is a good thing, but not here, with all line readings bordering on the catatonic. I enjoyed the first movie, and the second to a lesser extent, but this latest one was pure agony.
These movies may play better in marathon viewings with their previous films, but my main complaint with these films, such as DIVERGENT and THE MAZE RUNNER, is they're mainly exposition, building up to the next film in the series. Background has replaced narrative. DIVERGENT was especially guilty of this, with seemingly two hours of exposition and endless training sequences until the main plot kicks in for the remaining 20 minutes which, in turn, will be (somewhat) rectified in the next installment. It's like paying money to see a play but we only get Act 1. These aren't movies anymore, they're guidebooks. These have all been proven successful, so I'm afraid the trend is here to stay for awhile, but it's a trend I don't welcome.
Many of the critical favorites left me somewhat cold as well. BIRDMAN I appreciated for the acting (across the board superb) but the end result I found more exhausting than exhilarating. I'm not a fan of this intense, in your face style of moviemaking, but many are and they got more out of it than I did. I was sincerely glad when it was over.
I should have enjoyed THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL more, but it was a little too cartoony for me, Still, I welcome the chance to see it again, and was puzzled by my reaction to it, as I've enjoyed other Wes Anderson movies and this is the kind of movie I generally like.
When things got dire at the local theater, there was always the joys and pleasures of classic movies. The happiest classic film re-discovery of the year was MR. SKEFFINGTON (1944) starring Bette Davis as Fanny, a vain, silly, stupid, vapid woman who lives her life thinking only of herself, until it's almost too late. With Claude Rains (never better) as the title character, her husband, the aptly named Job, and a stellar supporting cast including Walter Abel, Robert Shayne, John Alexander, Jerome Cowan, and a beautiful performance by Marjorie Riordan as the neglected daughter. The film is artfully directed by Vincent Sherman and scripted by Julius and Philip Epstein of CASABLANCA (1942) fame. Like that film, the array of supporting characters is rich and textured, with each one given a standout scene or line of dialogue. Franz Waxman's musical score is a marvel, and the final scene offers one of his most inspired compositions. Spanning several decades, the movie runs two-and-a-half hours but there's not a wasted scene and when it was over, I could have happily watched it all over again.
Here is my admittedly personal and idiosyncratic picks for the best films of 2014.
BEST OF THE YEAR:
10. A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES – Terrific downbeat detective drama starring Liam Neeson, in one of his best performances. It reminded me of a 1970s crime drama like the great THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973), where, like Robert Mitchum's performance in that movie, years from now, people will be wondering why Liam Neeson wasn't Oscar nominated. It's the kind of performance that never dates.
9. EDGE OF TOMORROW – This science fiction time bending drama starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt was hugely entertaining, in addition to being the wittiest and funniest film of the year - a sad commentary on the state of contemporary film comedy.
8. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS - Years ago, Shailene Woodley would have likely earned a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal as a young woman battling cancer. But alas, these days it's likely deemed too commercial for consideration, which is a shame as it's one of the best performances of the year. I'm something of a softie (read pussy) and this one really choked me up (to the great amusement of the theater manager I've gotten to know over the years. He likes Randolph Scott, so you know he's an OK guy, in addition to being a fine manager).
7. WHIPLASH – This film would have been much higher on the list except for a story turn at the end, when J.K. Simmons' teacher character does something so out of character that it almost derailed the film for me. Still, one of the best uses of capturing the excitement of live music on film that I have ever seen.
6. BEGIN AGAIN – Speaking of music on film, this film about independent musicians in New York City was the most charming and likable film of the year, two qualities in woefully short supply this year. The sequence where Mark Ruffalo witnesses Keira Knightley's acoustical guitar performance and imagines in his mind the proper full rock band musical accompaniment was my favorite sequence of the year. I wish more people had seen this one. Speaking of Keira Knightley, she had an absolutely stellar year with this, THE IMITATION GAME and the sadly underseen LAGGIES. I'm looking forward to what she does next.
5. LIFE ITSELF – This documentary on Roger Ebert's life was a wonderful celebration of a life well lived to the fullest.
4. INTO THE WOODS – What a pleasure to hear a musical so well sung and see it so cleverly staged. Great acting and a marvelous production design anchor this adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical, the best movie musical in years.
3. NIGHTCRAWLER – Jake Gyllenhall's sociopath news cameraman was the scariest characterization of the year. I had no idea where the story was going, and the portrayal of nighttime Los Angeles repulsed as much as it fascinated.
2. THE IMITATION GAME – I found this Nazi code breaking drama fascinating in its WWII sequences, but could have used one or two less flashbacks of Alan Turing being tormented as a young boy at school. Like last year's SAVING MR. BANKS too many flashbacks sidetrack the narrative. I have also yet to jump on the Benedict Cumberbatch bandwagon, and while I thought he was good, I felt there needed to be a little more spark – a little more zing – in his characterization. The film brightens immeasurably whenever Keira Knightley's character appears.
1. BOYHOOD – Yes, I know a cliched pick, but I did find this the most rewarding film of the year, not just for its production (shot over a 12-year period) but for its look at how the big, and especially the tiny, moments in life help form us into the adults we become. A beautifully acted panorama of the human condition which left me emotionally drained, in a good way.
Runner Ups: LUCY, LOVE IS STRANGE, ST. VINCENT, SELMA, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING.
WORST OF THE YEAR (In Alphabetical Order)
A HAUNTED HOUSE 2 – Not a laugh to be found anywhere.
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST – It was great to see Monument Valley again in a movie, but otherwise a painfully long and deadening experience. Still there were a few mild chuckles to be had, so it rates ahead A HAUNTED HOUSE 2.
ANNIE – Everything you could possibly want in a musical - grisly musical arrangements and club footed choreography (what little there is of it.), made by people who appear to not want to put any music in their musical. Genuinely unbearable.
DUMB AND DUMBER 2 – From the unending list of unfunny 2014 comedies.
EARTH TO ECHO – One of the few movies I've ever walked out on, just out of sheer boredom. Not an original thought or idea in its tiny space alien head.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS: I can't imagine a more uninteresting, passive or whispery Moses than Christian Bale's performance here. Charlton Heston's legacy remains happily secure. I love Biblical and ancient world epics, and for years thought M-G-M's THE PRODIGAL (1955) was the worst of the lot. And then I saw EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS.
GOD'S NOT DEAD – I can't think of a movie where I so agreed with its message yet hated the simplistic, phony and condescending way it was delivered. For me, it's the opposite of the movie version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949). I don't buy Ayn Rand's loony philosophy for a minute, but man, that is one entertaining movie.
I, FRANKENSTEIN – The worst in CGI exhaustion.
LEFT BEHIND – This Rapture drama starring Nicolas Cage was so bad, I considered turning atheist when it was over.
NEIGHBORS – Tied with A HAUNTED HOUSE 2 as the nadir of my 2014 moviegoing.
SEX TAPE – That unfunny 2014 comedy train just added the biggest caboose ever.
TRANSCENDENCE – Probably the best film on this worst list. It had some good ideas and with a different execution could have been a very interesting cautionary science fiction tale.
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION – I may have to end my policy of seeing movies filmed in Chicago.
WINTER'S TALE – This time travel romance was a laughably bad fiasco from top to bottom, with all-time worst performances from Russell Crowe, Will Smith and Colin Farrell. It's THE STORY OF MANKIND (1958) of the 21th century.
I'm hoping 2015 will be a good year. There's a new 007 film to look forward to – always a treat, and the new MAD MAX movie FURY ROAD looks jaw droppingly amazing based on the trailer. There's two westerns starring Kurt Russell (yea!), and new movies from Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. And while I'm not a STAR WARS fan, for those millions looking forward to the new one in December I hope it meets or exceeds their expectations.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Universal Studios' THE SUN NEVER SETS (1939) sounds like its the quintessential salute to the British Empire. It's not, and it's curiously actionless for most of its 96-minute running time. But the themes of sacrifice and love for country are prevalent throughout, and coming as it did to theaters on the eve of World War II, it likely struck a chord with audiences – not just the British – about the world wide sacrifices soon to come.
Set during contemporary times, THE SUN NEVER SETS focuses on the Randolphs, a family who have dedicated themselves to England for several centuries. Basil Rathbone is Clive Randolph (named after the famed British statesman Robert Clive perhaps?), returning to England with his wife Helen (Barbara O'Neil) after 15 years of service as Commissioner in the Gold Coast of Africa (present day Ghana). They both look forward to serving their country from England and raising a family.
Younger brother John (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr) is something of a hothead, and doesn't believe in following the family trade of diplomatic service. He's resentful of the sacrifices made to his family. When John asks why the family does what it has done for so long, family patriarch and grandfather Sir John Randolph (C. Aubrey Smith, naturally) answers John's critique with three words - “But we belong.”
John agrees to join the service because, as he explains in the film's best line, “I just got run over by an empire.” No better words exemplify C. Aubrey Smith.
Sir John is inordinately proud of his family's service, serving England for more than 40 years. He keeps track of the various Randolph postings throughout the Empire by planting flags to mark their locations on a map in his study.
I experienced a bit of confusion in the script regarding Sir John's character. John makes reference to his grandfather's expulsion from the diplomatic corps for one small mistake, but no other mention is made of it by anyone else. Sir John seems to hold no resentment for being cashiered from the service.
But Smith is marvelous in the role, as he is in every performance. It's hard to imagine any Golden Age movie set in the British Empire that does not have Sir C. Aubrey Smith in it. His closest competitor was Sir Guy Standing, who died in 1937, so Smith owned the this particular field for the next 10 years.
Another bit of oddity regarding Sir C. Aubrey is a short scene at a dinner party where Sir John is about to relate one of his tales of old glory until he is stopped cold by the guests, who tell him he has told that story many times before.
This could be a winking allusion to what would be one of Smith's most famous portrayals, as the old soldier who relates his exaggerated exploits at the Battle of Balaclava in THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939). THE SUN NEVER SETS was released in the United States on May 31, 1939, and THE FOUR FEATHERS had opened the previous month in England. Or it could be a coincidence.
Anyway, between his grandson's mention of an early expulsion from the service and a tale cut short at a dinner party, it's assumed he was not the most effective diplomat. It's something the film barely touches on and is not part of the film's overall ode to Empire service. But its there. I wonder if earlier drafts of the script played up this angle more? Or, with war looming, any suggestion that the Empire would get rid of valued workers over a petty incident would likely not play well with a paying audience.
Villain of the piece is Zurof (Lionel Atwill), who leads a scientific expedition studying ants and insects. It's all a front, as Zurof is digging for raw materials called, I think, something like melibium, which is an element used for bonding steel. The mine is also a front for a broadcast station which is used to ferment “organized agitation” throughout the world. Broadcasts are worldwide via a giant antennae which stays underground until put to use, when it rises out of the ground and into the sky like something out of a serial. We then see a montage of unrest in the world with acts of sabotage linked to the broadcast, such as factories being bombed, ships torpedoed and bombs falling from the sky.
Zurof says the world is ready to be taken over. “It only takes one generation to make a dictator.” While he is not identified as German, the surname, along with a monocle he wears in several scenes, make it clear Zurof's nationality.
No one is sure of the agitator's identity, and the British government calls an emergency session to discover the broadcast's source. “We need the best minds in all our colonies” to find out where the broadcasts are coming from.
Clive Randolph is ordered back to the dangerous Gold Coast. He reluctantly accepts even though Helen is expecting their first child. John is also sent to the Gold Coast, but still resents his duty and can't see why his brother would want to subject his increasingly ill wife to the harsh African countryside.
Basil Rathbone had a stellar year in 1939, with five film appearances including his first two Sherlock Holmes movies. He made two other movies at Universal with director Rowland V. Lee that year, the historical drama TOWER OF LONDON and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.
In THE SUN NEVER SETS, Rathbone has a good scene with Atwill when the two of them fake civility with barely hidden hostility. Those fans who enjoy their scenes together in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) will likely get an extra charge from their scene here.
In another SON OF FRANKENSTEIN echo, Clive's pressure between duty and love of wife causes him to have a brief bout of hysteria, and the scene here where he is overcome with emotion is reminiscent of his SON OF FRANKENSTEIN's hysteria scenes.
Helen is the strong one, sending Clive on his mission, telling him he's never failed the service and he's not to start now. Helen Randolph is in the best tradition of wives who selflessly let their men serve their country.
Surprisingly, the film offers little action in the first 80 minutes or so. John Randolph inadvertently becomes Zulof's dupe, and Clive gets cashiered out of the service, taking the blame for John's mistake.
But in the best Hollywood tradition, John redeems himself by learning of Zulof's true identity, and discovering the secret radio station. The underground radio station is, again, like something out of a serial and no doubt delighted the Saturday afternoon crowd.
Fairbanks likely didn't think much of the film as there is no mention of it in “The Salad Days” (Doubleday, 1988), the first volume of his autobiography. (Even GREEN HELL (1940), which Fairbanks names as his worst movie, gets a mention).
To the best of my knowledge the film has never been released on VHS or DVD. I viewed the film thanks to a decades old recording taped off AMC. I remember when the film was scheduled, as I had never heard of it and was surprised when the credits came up listing all those well known names. To be sure, it's a small footnote in the careers of Rathbone and Fairbanks, but the two play well together (they were good friends off screen) and are convincing as brothers.
Barbara O'Neil delivers the film's best performance and has a terrific scene where her dangerously sick Helen, soon to give birth, practically orders her husband out of camp and to his duty. O'Neil had another film in release that year, where she played Scarlett O'Hara's mother. I won't bother with its name. She also co-starred with Rathbone that year in TOWER OF LONDON.
Its salute to the British Empire as a stabilizing source in a troubled world was a likely tonic to a nervous world holding its breath as to when conflagration would erupt. It did later that year, of course, and if its politics seem quaint today, the film offers a peek into a world where the non-existence of the British Empire was unthinkable.
For moviegoers of the first half of the twentieth century movies of valor and courage set in the British Empire were a regular staple of movie goer's diets. This blogathon celebrates the best of these and there's tons of good reading to be had. Go to http://phantomempires.weebly.com/movies/announcement-the-british-empire-blogathon for a list of titles and sites. My sincere thanks to hosts Jeff at The Stalking Moon and Clayton of Phantom Empires for allowing me to participate.
I'm very pleased to be participating in the upcoming British Empire Blogathon, hosted by The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires.
I will be posting on THE SUN NEVER SETS (1939), with Basil Rathbone, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lionel Atwill, and, of course, Sir C. Aubrey Smith. With a title like that, Sir C. Aubrey better be in it!
Alas, I will not be able to post until Monday, November 17, as my home laptop is under repair and I will be out of town that weekend for a funeral. I won't have access to a computer until Monday.
It looks to be a jolly good line-up of contributors and I'm looking forward to reading all the entries.
A complete list of participants can be found here:
See you on Monday.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
THE GIRL IN THE CASE (1944) is a one-shot effort from Columbia Pictures featuring Edmund Lowe and Janis Carter as William and Myra Warner. William Warner is a lawyer by trade but also an well-regarded locksmith with a special interest in historic locks and keys.
Allusion is made to a substantial age difference between the two, but William and Myra clearly adore each other. He indulges her spending sprees and she puts up with his fascination with locks.
The initial set-up is promising, as Warner greets client Dick Elliott in his law office suite. He beckons Elliott to the room next door which is filled with ancient keys, locks and chests.
Warner and his assistant Tuffy (Stanley Clements) communicate with each other via clickers tapping out Morse Code and the subtitles appear on the screen for us to see what they are saying to each other. This comes in very handy when the two lock Elliott in a stockade and can't find the right key to let him free.
It's an engaging set-up and I thought I might be in for a breezy and entertaining B mystery movie filled with snappy patter and mysterious going ons.
But the film is never as good as those opening scenes, and the film gets sillier as it goes along. The Warners get involved in some shenanigans involving a secret chemical formula found in an ancient trunk that only Warner can open. The mystery isn't very involved and journeyman director William Berke doesn't generate much atmosphere or suspense.
But the film does allow some small pleasures. I was amused by a scene where Warner is asked by the police department to help open up some doors at an oceanside warehouse that has caught fire. The Warners look at the conflagration from their balcony and it looks like the whole city is on fire. We're talking Chicago Fire here. Either that, or its the biggest warehouse ever constructed anywhere.
They make their way to the warehouse where Warner uses his locksmith skills to open the door so some potentially lethal gas cans can be retrieved before they explode. Warner is wearing a top hat the entire time. It's that kind of movie. Someone from Columbia's famed comedy shorts department must have been on hand that day to supervise the scene where flames light up the top hat of an unsuspecting Warner.
I've always had a soft spot for Edmund Lowe since he stars in one of my favorite 1930s movies CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932). He and Janis Carter have some nice chemistry together, despite their age differences. There are some close-ups of Carter where she looks so much like Anita Louise its surprising no one ever cast them as sisters.
THE GIRL IN THE CASE was recently released as part of the Sony MOD program. I must admit to never even hearing of it before, but I'm glad titles like this are coming out. There are often some real gems to be found and if its because these titles are so unfamiliar its not because they're bad, but because they haven't been seen in four or five decades.
It seemed worth a rental and while I'm glad I saw it I must admit to barely remembering it even as I write these notes less than 24 hours after watching it.
Monday, September 22, 2014
I was nine years old when I saw my first John Wayne movie, BIG JAKE, at the theater and that may be one of the reasons I like it so much. I remember being very impressed by this towering authority figure who travels to Mexico to retrieve his kidnapped grandson from the clutches of a ruthless outlaw gang led by John Fain (Richard Boone).
I've written before about that viewing that night at the Dolton Theater, my home away from home growing up. The place was packed on that summer evening and the theater was obviously loaded with John Wayne fans. When that freeze frame appeared at the end and the triumphant Elmer Bernstein score kicked in to herald the end credits, the applause and cheering was long and sustained. I remember it to this day. I think I was one of those louder participants.
Like some young 'uns seeing STAR WARS (1977) or E.T. (1982) for the first time, I can say that BIG JAKE screening changed my life.
I love the many dialogue exchanges between Wayne and Boone. Here are two men who would kill each other at the drop of a hat, but I believe have a grudging respect for each other. The film was written by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, who also wrote DIRTY HARRY that year. I can easily imagine Dirty Harry saying some Big Jake's dialogue and vice versa. The film is loaded with endlessly quotable dialogue.
The one scene between Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, in what proved to be the last of their five films together, is a testament to movie star mystique. Wayne greets estranged wife O'Hara and the look that passes between them says more than pages of dialogue could. If one had never seen a John Wayne/Maureen O'Hara movie before, the scene plays beautifully, with the two anxious to secure their grandson's freedom. But for movie fans who have long enjoyed their previous films together the scene has added resonance. However you see it, it plays beautifully on both levels.
As I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate the many familiar faces in the cast. Old-time western fans who watched hundreds of westerns in the past likely silently cheered each time a favorite face showed up: John Agar, Harry Carey, Jr., Glenn Corbett, Jim Davis, John Doucette, Gregg Palmer and Hank Worden. Just typing all of those names makes me very happy.
BEWITCHED's Dr. Bombay himself, Bernard Fox, has a good scene as a shepherd about to be hung before being saved by Big Jake.
Wayne has one of his all-time best introductory scenes here, with a great close up of him taking aim at the aforementioned lynching party. He's decides not to butt in, until one of the lynchers hits a little boy. That's enough for Wayne to ride down and confront lynch leader Jim Davis.
Patrick Wayne (Duke's son) and Christoper Mitchum (Robert's son) are both every appealing as his estranged sons who join their father in the trek down to Mexico. Jake's best friend is an Indian, Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), who accompanies the trio as well. Also tagging along is Wayne's dog, which he simply calls Dog. (Was this an homage to Wayne's great HONDO (1953)? If memory serves, he calls his dog in that movie Dog as well).
Anti-P.C. Rant – I love how Wayne's best friend in the movie is a Native American, which gives no credence to the belief held by many that Wayne's movies are filled with anti-Native American bigotry. Some may wince at a Native American being played by Bruce Cabot. Wayne would have scoffed at that. Bruce Cabot was a long-standing friend and Wayne loved working with his buddies. Cabot needed the work and Wayne was happy to oblige. Helping out a friend was much more important to Wayne than being politically correct. It was one of Cabot's last films. He died the following year.
If there are some faults to find with the film, it's we never find out why Wayne left his family years ago. Sam and Dog are both killed in the final shoot out and I wish there had been a scene – heck, even a line of dialogue would have sufficed – where Jake is regretful about the losses.
But the shootouts are beautifully staged, the scenery on the trek to Mexico is to die for, and the comedy bits are well played. Elmer Bernstein contributes one of his most infectious scores and the whole thing is a blast from beginning to end. It's one of my all time favorites.
After I saw it for the firs time, I remember asking my dad about this Wayne guy and he told me he's been in movies forever, and they showed up on TV all the time (even in the early 1970s this was true). A few weeks later a local station advertised THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN (1949) on the 10:30 movie. Since Wayne was in it I wanted to see it and to my delight there was Oliver Hardy in the movie. I had been a Laurel and Hardy fan for as long as I could remember but didn't know he was going to be in it. It was like a whole world was opening up before me. I couldn't wait to see what else it revealed.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
That love may not be shared by others.
I'm not necessarily talking about favorite movies beloved by millions like CASABLANCA (1942) or SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952).
No, what I mean are those movies that you and you alone seem to adore. The kind where you eagerly share with others, but when the movie is over an embarrassed silence engulfs the room.
“You actually like that?” is the unspoken implication.
Maybe comfort movie isn't the right term, but it will do for now. I know quite a few people who can quote from the THE GODFATHER movies at the drop of a hat. Again, I'm not talking about universally beloved movies, but one's own very personal favorites.
I have friends who have their own comfort movies. One friend unreservedly loves MR. DESTINY (1990) with Jim Belushi, while another worships at the altar of MYSTERY, ALASKA (1999), the Russell Crowe hockey movie. I enjoyed both of them but not to the extent they do. But there is some intangible thing about those movies they respond to. I get that. I may not share it with those particular titles, but I totally understand where they are coming from.
There will be occasional looks at favorite comfort movies of mine. Movies that make me just as happy to think about as to watch, opinions not shared by many others, but that does not stop me from adoring each of these movies without reservation. (Note, these will not be critical evaluations). There may be some slight spoilers ahead.
One of 20th Century Fox's first Cinemascope adventure films, PRINCE VALIANT (1954) ranks among my all-time favorite swashbucklers. Not only is it one of the most enjoyable swashbucklers ever made, but I think it is one of the best comic strip/comic book adaptations ever. Some of the images and scenes were copied right from Hal Foster's celebrated comic strip chronicling the adventures of the young Viking prince, and they're a joy to behold. For me, its one of the few movies that captures the exuberance and excitement of the comics medium.
Some friends I've shown it to do not share my appreciation of the film, and found it pretty juvenile. For one, they could not get past star Robert Wagner's wig in the film. (Wagner agrees with them, calling it his Bette Davis look). But you can't do a Prince Valiant film without that famous Valiant hairstyle and trying to do so is like making a Superman movie without the iconic costume)
Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain is also a tough swallow for many, but the big lug is very appealing. It may not be his best performance, but I'm hard pressed to think of one that is so likable. True, I guess a Knight of the Round Table should not be thought of as a lug, but that's how Hayden plays him.
Love interest is delivered by Janet Leigh and Debra Paget, two of the loveliest medieval princesses one could imagine. This is the movie that began my life-long infatuation with Debra Paget. (Shameless name dropping: Years ago I met Janet Leigh at a book signing years and told her how much I like this film. She said she read the Prince Valiant comic strip growing up, and was thrilled to be cast in the movie.)
James Mason is Sir Brack, a Knight of the Round Table who is also the Black Knight, a mysterious figure who allies with the pagan Vikings to overthrow King Arthur's Camelot. He's great as always, with his marvelously plummy voice contrasting nicely with Wagner's. I've always been intrigued by his appearance here. He likely considered it slumming, as movies adapted from comic strips and comic books were mainly the purview of Saturday afternoon serials. Over the last several decades, it's become routine for celebrated actors like Gene Hackman and Anthony Hopkins to appear in comic book movies, but back then James Mason's appearance in one must have been an eyebrow raiser for many. I think he's great in it, a pure pleasure to watch. What a year he had in 1954, what with two of his most famous performances, in A STAR IS BORN and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.
Director Henry Hathaway, who has provided me with lots of red-blooded thrills over the years, gives us one of the best castle sieges in history, with Christian Vikings attacking the pagan Vikings in an orgy of screaming men, flashing swords, battering rams, fire, boiling oil and crumbling walls.
But the real star of the movie may be composer Franz Waxman, who delivered one of the most gloriously exuberant scores in motion picture history. Why it isn't more celebrated I'll never know, because it's pure joy from beginning to end. There's a short sequence where Valiant is escaping from a seaside prison by undoing the bars on a window. Using a rope made from a mattress spring he uses it to scale the walls and escape. Waxman gives us a stunning piece of music during the 120-second or so sequence which delivers more orchestral color, drama and suspense than anything I've heard at the movies over the last 10 years.
The final broadsword duel between Valiant and Sir Brack is one of the best in moviedom, with the broadswords making enormous clanging sounds as each tries to outfight the other. Waxman leaves the sequence unscored save towards the end, when Valiant begins getting the better of his nemesis. Waxman introduces a very ethereal, high pitched, slow treatment of his main Prince Valiant theme, played on, of all things, an electric violin, subliminally implying that now is the moment when Prince Valiant has ceased to be a boy and has become a man. It's a beautifully scored scene, working on both a dramatic and musical level.
The final scene sees Prince Valiant knighted Sir Valiant for his service to King Arthur. It's a great pity there was never a sequel called SIR VALIANT. But what we have here is one of the most wonderfully entertaining swashbucklers of all time.
One of the best studies of the swashbuckling genre is the book “Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York” by Jeffrey Richards (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1977). Richards shares my enthusiasm for the film and provides some very interesting production background:
“The rights to the strip were purchased by MGM who for two years tried and failed to get it into script form. Eventually they sold the rights to 20th Century Fox and producer Robert Jacks, enthusiastic about the project, decided to go directly to the strip for inspiration. 23,980 drawings were made available to screenwriter Dudley Nichols and from them he fashioned a dramatic and exciting script. Fox then assigned a budget of 3 million dollars and assembled a talented team of artists to bring the script to life: cinematographer Lucien Ballard, composer Franz Waxman and ace action director Henry Hathaway. Nine weeks of location shooting in Britain produced some superb footage of Caernarvon, Warwick, Braemar and Eilean Donan castles, with Ainwick standing in as Camelot and the Scottish village of Dornie transformed into a Viking settlement. Back in Hollywood, Sligon's castle was constructed at the Fox studios and for several days a Viking fleet was to be seen sailing off the Pacific coast, so that exteriors for the film could be completed.
“Tableau-style ceremonial, hieratic groupings and deliberately posed medium and long-shot dialogue scenes are the entirely appropriate hallmarks of Henry Hathaway's direction, conveying without effort the ritual and mythic elements of the story. But the film is punctuated by all-stops-out, no-holds-barred action sequences, handled by veteran stunt director Richard Talmadge, with a full complement of Hollywood stuntmen, half of whom were injured in one way or another during the course of the picture. (Fencing Instructor) Jean Heremans coached Robert Wagner in sword-fighting and helped stage the fencing sequences. Henry Hathaway paid tribute to his expertise when he described the character of Valiant as a “combination of D'Artagnan, Doug Fairbanks Sr., Tarzan, Robin Hood, Jim Bowie, William Tell and Jean Heremans.'”
You can have your dopey Dark Knight movies or the beyond wretched MAN OF STEEL (2013). For me PRINCE VALIANT ranks among the best comic strip movies ever. It's a fun, exhilarating movie that doesn't have a dull moment and is chock full of speed, romance and action. I don't care if others don't respond to it. PRINCE VALIANT is one movie I never get tired watching.
Off the top of my head, I can think of other comfort movies I can write about, such as John Wayne in BIG JAKE (1971), Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland in BREAKHEART PASS (1976), WWII all-star musicals THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943) and (despite an aversion to Betty Hutton) STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM (1942), Jon Hall and Maria Montez in ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944). So many wonderful movies....even if I sometimes feel I'm the only one who thinks so.
What are some of your favorite comfort movies?
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Dibs and Dabs: Russell Crowe, Jersey Boys, Obscure U.S. Presidents on Film and A Strange Coincidence Involving The Mole People
I haven't watched anything of late to blog about, but I've had a few ideas percolating in my mind for a couple of weeks. Current movies will be discussed, but there will be some Golden Age tie-ins.
The Mumbler Russell Crowe
No one talks like this. I've had some very serious conversations in my day but none of them took place at volumes lower than dog whistles. Some of Mr. Crowe's dialogue delivery in these films, especially NOAH, is rendered practically mute due to him speaking his lines in a barely heard whisper. I had no problem understanding dialogue from the other performers, so there was no fault with the theater's sound system or my hearing. It's infuriating and compounds what is already two excruciating viewing experiences. He's always been a low talker, but he seems to have taken his whisperings to new levels of inaudibility.
Among Golden Age stars, Alan Ladd was probably the champion low talker. Now I've seen many an Alan Ladd movie in my time, but never once have I had a problem understanding what he was saying. Alan Ladd enunciates. Russell Crowe mumbles.
Like someone telling Clint Eastwood to please hire a professional composer to write the scores for his movies, I wish someone would tell Russell Crowe to stop mumbling, speak clearly and don't pretend that your mumbling has anything to do with the way people talk. In its own way, it's as forced and mannered as the most exaggerated pantomime in silent cinema.
Speaking of Clint Eastwood I went to see his latest, JERSEY BOYS, one of my most eagerly anticipated films of the summer. It's only OK, and I was pretty disappointed. We've seen so many rags to riches show biz sagas I'm not sure if anything new can be brought to the table. I like my musical biographies to have lots of music and for me there was not enough of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as performers. Some might argue that if I want the music buy a CD. But for me, if a movie sacrifices back story for performances of the music that made them famous, such as the Sousa biography STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER (1952) or the Gus Kahn story I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1952), then I'm all for it.
Not that a musical biopic should be all music. But since many show biz movies are so clichéd, I'd rather hear the music that made the artist famous in the first place. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) is, for me, the champion biopic that deftly balances music, drama, comedy and historic background in a most satisfying way.
Minor spoiler alert in the next paragraph:
JERSEY BOYS wraps up with a production number of “Oh, What a Night” with every character in the movie participating in during a street party. It's a terrific number and one of the highlights of the movie. But then director Eastwood almost ruins it at the end, with everyone freezing with arms extended into the air, as if they are awaiting applause. It lasts a long time and is really annoying. It's a movie, not a stage show. Very odd. I felt the same way at the end of the movie version of MAMA MIA! (2008), where Meryl Streep and company perform ed a number and then asked the audience if they want more. What works on stage comes off as terribly forced and one would think a more creative solution could be found for such moments. It's all very strange and off-putting.
Obscure Presidents on Film
If that sounds familiar, it's because two years earlier Secret Service agent Robert Taylor found himself in a similar jam in THIS IS MY AFFAIR (1937), with President #25 William McKinley felled by an assassin's bullet before he can pardon undercover agent Taylor. Again, only the president is aware of the mission.
There aren't too many portrayals of Harrison and Garfield in the movies, and I found it an amusing coincidence that I saw them a few days apart. I eagerly await future sightings of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur.
The Police and the Mole People
A scene from THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956) while channel flipping recently reminded me of the strange quirks the universe sometimes plays on us poor souls.
I've only been in the police car twice in my life and both times there has been a MOLE PEOPLE connection. How's that for an attention getter.
Back in the VHS days, Blockbuster Video used to have a big sale during Labor Day weekend, where unrented tapes would be put up for sale. I would spend far too much time driving to various Blockbusters looking for wanted titles. Since my interest was in classic cinema and most Blockbuster patrons only rented the latest trash on the New Releases shelf, I usually found some real gems.
One visit netted me a copy of THE MOLE PEOPLE, a terrible film to be sure, but one I'll probably watch many more times than the Best Picture winner that year, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.
I was driving home when I saw vast amounts of steam coming from my car hood. I was at a red light when the car stalled. The blinkers went on and fortunately a squad car had seen me and followed me. He pulled up behind me, lights flashing and I waited in the back seat of the squad car for a tow truck to take me to the repair shop at my dealer, several miles away. I remember watching THE MOLE PEOPLE when I got home. After all, I didn't have a car to go anyplace.
Jump ahead quite a few years and I'm in the car again, waiting for a red light to change. It does and I'm ready to go forward when the car dies. Nothing. I put the car in park and turned the key several times to no avail. Again, a squad car was nearby, noticed by flashing blinkers and pulled behind me. For the second time in my life, I waited in the back seat of a squad car until I could be rescued by a tow truck.
Since the car repair shop was only eight blocks away, I walked home and there on the front porch was a package from Amazon, a DVD set of five 1950s science fiction movies, one of which was THE MOLE PEOPLE.
What are the odds? I mean, really. What are the odds?
I will never buy THE MOLE PEOPLE on Blu Ray. I can't afford another car repair bill.