Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Weekend of Movie Viewing

I enjoyed a four-day weekend last week, which allowed me to catch up on a few movies. In two cases, films I had remembered turned out differently from my old memory.

Since my most recent blog was about “The Sundowners” I thought I would watch another 1960 release, “Home from the Hill”, a piece of Southern-fried soap opera also starring Robert Mitchum, though as a very different kind of father from the loving one presented in “The Sundowners.” In this one, Mitchum plays a wealthy landowner with two sons, one legitimate (George Hamilton) and one illegitimate (George Peppard). I was going to be clever and point out the differences between Mitchum’s father portrayals in the same year. I’d only seen “Home from the Hill” once before, but I remember it as being a pretty good movie, with Mitchum terrifying his role as the Southern patriarch who pits his two sons against each other.

Well, it’s nothing like that. He’s actually a sympathetic father to Hamilton, who is shy and in awe of his father. He takes him hunting and prepares him on the road to manhood. He admits he’s made mistakes, and is anxious to forge a strong relationship with his son. Circumstances prove otherwise.

It’s not very good. It’s long (150 minutes) and the character’s motivations seem contrived and confused. It’s adapted from a long novel but in adapting it all the I’s weren’t dotted and all the T’s weren’t crossed. Even Mitchum’s character seems to change depending on the scene. He’s fine in the individual scenes, but when it was over I never got a grasp of the character or where he was coming from. Still, Mitchum remains supremely watchable as ever. There’s also a nice score by Bronislau Kaper, with a majestic main theme that makes one wish one could live in a soap opera with a dysfunctional family, only if such a melody were present in the background.

Rating for “Home from the Hill”: A disappointing two and a half stars.

From TCM I watched “The Black Knight” (1954), starring, of all people, Alan Ladd, in the title role and set during the time of Camelot. I hadn’t seen it since grade school when it appeared on the 3:30 movie and the only thing I remembered about it was a scene where some Druids (or some other pagan representatives) were holding a human sacrifice outdoors at a Stonehenge-like temple. There were these giant wicker cages suspended in the air by ropes where Druid dancers were writhing around, kind of a like a medieval disco. It made quite an impression on me.

Unfortunately my memory was slightly skewed, as the wicker cages contained monks and priests, who are shown praying as the pagans practice their idolatrous ways. Oh, there’s still a sacrifice scene, and there are Druid dancing girls but they are on the ground and not up in the air as a precursor to the sacrifice. I admit to being somewhat disappointed that I didn’t see those Druid women writhing about in those cages. No doubt a psychiatrist can explain why.

The rest of “The Black Knight” is pretty clunky, and Alan Ladd looks as out of place in medieval England as Keanu Reeves would, but it’s entertaining enough, and boasts a nice villainous turn by Peter Cushing and a tuneful score by John Addison.

Rating for “The Black Knight”: Two and a half stars.

One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and easily the worst of the year, is “Transformers”, a monument to stupidity the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. There’s a cliché that director Michael Bay is the Antichrist of Hollywood, and represents everything wrong with contemporary Hollywood cinema and I’m afraid this is one cliché that is correct. Everyone connected with this pile of garbage should be ashamed of themselves. (And its, gasp, 144 minutes!)

Rating for “Transformers”: One star.

The most enjoyable movie I watched all weekend was “The Black Camel” (1931) found on Vol. 3 of the new Charlie Chan DVD set. Out of the first five Charlie Chan movies to star Warner Oland, only “The Black Camel” survives. It’s a good one, with Charlie investigating the murder of a movie star on location in Honolulu. There’s a colorful cast of suspects, including “Dracula” stars Bela Lugosi (as a swami) and Dwight Frye, an impossibly youthful looking Robert Young and beady-eyed C. Henry Gordon, who nine years later would be a suspect in “Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum.” Oland, in his second turn as the famous sleuth, has the mannerisms down pat, and he’s an absolute delight in the role, especially in his gentle put downs of an over-zealous assistant.

Fox took added expense to film on location in Honolulu, a rare occurrence at the time, and the scenes of 1931 Honolulu have an added charm. All this and a running time of only 71 minutes.

For years, “The Black Camel” was only available on bad looking black markets tapes, so I’m thrilled Fox put this out on DVD. It’s probably the DVD release of the year so far.

Rating for “The Black Camel”: Three stars. Thank you so much.

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