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Oct 9, 2016

SO MUCH CONTENT, SO LITTLE TIME - #FirstWorldProblems

We are living in a wonderful time where there is so much content available, it's hard to keep up.  If you work in the Entertainment Industry, or even if you're just a cinephile who likes to watch as much as humanly possible, it has become nearly impossible to see even a large percentage of all that is out there for viewing.  With so many streaming services, new movies in theaters, cable TV (although many are opting out on this one, and the number continues to grow) as well as Disc purchases (another number that is falling), Film Festivals...the list goes on, keeping up with content has become almost work.  Needless to say this is a First World Problem indeed.  Many people worry about important things like where their next meal is coming from, looking for work or keeping a roof over their head.  Those are real problems, this one is not.

I used to pride myself on at least sampling every TV show and seeing as many movies as possible (on the big screen of course), but now with 3 streaming subscriptions, a full DVR, and the purchase of at least 2-3 discs a week (some of them box sets) not to mention books, video games and a full-time job that often demands overtime, I almost find myself panicking with the amount of content I keep piling up and intending to watch.  It became so overwhelming at one point I had to finally sit down and pull some shows of my list just so I could watch more films than TV (I have always prioritized cinema over Television), and keep up with what I felt was important not only for my industry passion, but my professional involvement as well.

A TV business podcast I listen too entitled "The Spin-off", an offshoot of "The Business" on KCRW (both must listens) frequently delves into the issue of this being the era of Peak TV a phrase coined by FX Network Chief John Landgraf, lamenting how thanks to weekly offerings of full shows from Netflix and other services, the glut of TV is out of control.  The show announced that at the beginning of 2016, there were 409 scripted series in some sort of production.  If critics who spend all their time watching (and I'm including movie critics as well) can't keep up, it becomes even tougher for those of us whose days aren't all about watching and critiquing content.

So what is the point of this post you may ask?  Frankly, I'm not sure myself.  It is almost a way of me airing my frustration at not being able to watch everything that I want, a problem that I'm not too upset at having.  I am sure others are in the same boat, and what it could mean is a further splintering of audiences as we become more and more curators of our own entertainment experience rather than letting others do it as we have in the past.

Oct 2, 2016

FILM REVISIT – PUNCHLINE (1988)



I once had a Twitter user get hostile with me when I mentioned that I had read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep three times.  His point-of-view was that we should only watch or read things once because the time would be better spent with new material.  While his point is valid, there are times when revisiting content has its advantages such as something that may have been brushed off or misunderstood at the time of release.  With that in mind, I love to mix my new film viewing with random titles from the past that I may have forgotten, or feel the need for a re-evaluation.

Warning: SPOIILERS ahead.

Punchline is a picture that would not come to mind as film that must be re-seen, and indeed, upon revisiting that assessment is dead on.  I first saw it in 1988 or 89 (whenever it was released on VHS) the only elements I remembered going in were that Sally Field is a housewife who wants to be a comic, she befriends Tom Hanks, the truly funny regular at the Gastown comedy club (in the movie) and a big sequence where Hanks has a massive emotional breakdown on stage and ends begging for someone to come on stage and save him from sinking himself even further.  The scene screams NOMINATE ME PLEASE, THIS IS AN IMPORTANT PICTURE, and indeed in 1988, Tom Hanks was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in BigBig went on to be a modern classic and launched Hanks’ career into superstardom.  Field was already there career-wise.  The two stars would later reteam for Forrest Gump, a picture that went on to win the second of back-to-back Oscars for Tom Hanks (while not consecutive, Sally Field is also a double award winner – for Places in the Heart and Norma Rae).  Punchline by comparison has gone relatively forgotten with the passage of time.  It is the pedigree of the performers and where they are at in their careers at this time that makes this a picture that I wanted to revisit.




The picture begins with a very “movie” opening.  You can even see the mechanics of “clever” screenwriting occurring as Sally Field meets Paul Mazursky (a director carrying out actor-only duties here) in a diner for a clandestine transaction that plays like an illegal drug deal, but actually she spending her cookie jar money on bad jokes.  That is how we’re introduced to Field the housewife/stand-up comic at a sad comedy club where a group of misfits regularly perform, which includes the very talented character played by Hanks who clearly deserves better exposure.  The owner of the club is Romeo played by Mark Rydell (another director taking on acting-only duties here), a surrogate father figure to this sad group, but one who believes that Hanks has what’s got to shoot to the top, and asks to be remembered who got him there unlike others in the past.




At first glance, Punchline has all the makings of an interesting picture.  You have a mousey, bourgeois housewife who loves her family, but also sneaks out nightly to perform comedy much to the chagrin of her uptight yet loving husband.  Great!  There’s Hanks, a talented yet struggling comic who has just been thrown out of Medical School, a fact he is hiding from his apparently strict father and is on the verge of being homeless unless he hits his stride soon.  Great!  She comes out of her shell and discovers her funny while he hits an emotional roadblock and begins to fall apart.  Great!  It all culminates with a contest at the club where one of the performers will land a spot on the Carson show (this is 1988 after all). Not great per say, but typical movie third act material, and works to keep an audience connected with the characters and their journey. 




All of the above beats get lost in a muddled narrative that seems to focus more attention on Hanks’ struggling comic rather than the housewife out-of-her-element.  Field is the more interesting character of the two, but the picture never really delves deep enough into her reasons for risking her marriage with her extracurricular activities, not to mention we really never see her doing any stand-up – outside of a few snippets (the lion share of this goes to Hanks) until an hour in when it is way too late to get invested in her passion.  That is if it even is passion.  Field never really sells the idea that she loves doing this.  She seems more afraid of displeasing her disapproving husband (John Goodman) who starts off as an overbearing bore then seems to instantly transform into an understanding and loving man when she gets a bad haircut.  I won’t get into the fact that he would prefer her to remain a stay-at-home wife which in 2016 really doesn’t fly.  In this case it dates the picture badly, even if unintentional. 




The real misstep of the picture though is when Hanks has his breakdown on stage when his father shows up at the club (instead of a talent scout he had been expecting).  Hanks doesn’t even try his routine, he just loses it by relaying childhood trauma and begins crying like a baby while his angry Patriarch looks on.  This is where Punchline takes on the pretension of being an important film and gets lost completely.  The focus on Hanks, which may have come out of the fact that he was really coming into his own at this point, and may have directed the focus of a picture that probably was intended to be more of a Sally Field spotlight during the development stage.  The problem is of course that we only get to see Sally be funny briefly, and then when she and Hanks get romantically complicated, well let’s just say that they are both so overly nice and the chemistry is just not there.  They are better suited as friends than lovers, and the idea that he is falling for her never goes beyond an awkward exploratory stage, yet we’re led to believe that his infatuation goes deeper.




Re-visiting Punchline it was easy to see why I had forgotten it, and while viewing it, it seemed just that, forgettable.  Hanks’ talent is on display, and thankfully he got some more serious roles down the line that launched him into the stratosphere.  You can feel Field really trying to do something different here, but not clicking with the material at all.  If anything, Hanks seems more comfortable in his role while she feels completely out-of-her-element.  If anything, take a look at the one-sheet above.  The tagline "it only hurts when you laugh" is punctuated with the word LAUGH larger than the title.  If the marketing campaign has to tell you to not-so-subliminally laugh, you know you have a problem.


Next up for this column: Sidney Pollack’s Havana (1990) with Robert Redford, a near forgotten box-office dud.

May 15, 2016

THE LAST 10 FILMS I WATCHED - May 13, 2016

I have been a loyal subscriber to Film Comment for almost 20 years now.  I first discovered the magazine during a lunch break while at a Driver's Education course in 1990.  It was the March/April issue (the publication is bi-monthly) and James Stewart was on the cover.  I was instantly taken in by the smart film writing, and for a while in High School I referred to it as my "Film Snob" magazine, especially when anyone saw it sitting next to the newest issues of Premiere or Entertainment Weekly.




One of my favorite features that has been added in recent years is when they have famous people list the last 10 films they've seen.  It's a great moment when you see someone like Werner Herzog list The Avengers alongside classic and foreign films (note, I'm making up that example, I forget if Mr. Herzog has even done a list or if he listed The Avengers on it).

So in the spirit of the Film Comment column, I am going to randomly do the same thing and post the last 10 films I have seen with the exception of expanding the entries with my thoughts on the films.  I find going back and looking over the last few titles is a great way to see where I've been cinematically, as well as also reveal gaps (minor or otherwise) in my film-viewing journey.

Starting from the tenth and working my way to the most recent.



THE SAPHEAD 

1920
Directed by: Herbert Blache and Winchell Smith
Scenario by June Mathis based on the original play The Henrietta, and the play by Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith

Buster Keaton is the 1920s version of a playboy.  He's young, he's spoiled and he's in love. An ambitious yet crooked investor working for the family business frames Keaton for his illegitimate affair - and child - ruining his impending marriage to his sweetheart. When left in charge, the investor tries to bankrupt the company for his own gain, however he doesn't account for Keaton who has just purchased a seat at the New York Stock Exchange who foils the plan in the typical comedic fashion.




This silent picture was restored with two versions of the film on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray Disc.  The final sequence has all the madcap hilarity that make silent pictures so fascinating and memorable, with Keaton unknowingly foiling the devious plot, forever keeping that famous stone face of his intact. 

Thanks to the passage of time, it's interesting to think about this Stock Market themed comedy that was released a mere nine years before the 1929 crash that resulted in the Great Depression.  Seeing the happy-go-lucky investors and stock traders that in a few short years will be anything but.



SWORD OF THE BEAST

1965
Directed by Hideo Gosha
Written by Hideo Gosha, Elizaburo Shiba

A Samurai is tricked into betraying his master, and is then hunted by the vengeful clan members.  During his flight, he comes across another Samurai who along with his Wife is stealing gold for their clan from a rival clan.  Corruption and betrayal are everywhere as these men who live by a strict code find very little honor surrounding them.



Much grittier than a Kurosawa picture, this Samurai story is a bit disjointed in spots, but in the end takes an unexpected turn.  The opening sequence of a woman distracting the protagonist with sex in a field is very racy, especially for a film of this period.

While not up to the quality of a Kurosawa film (and it';s hard not to compare because let's face it, Kurosawa's work is the gold standard) this presents a different take on the Samurai tale than you may be used to.




THE CASSANDRA CROSSING

1976
Directed by George Pan Cosmatos
Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz & Robert Katz and George Pan Cosmatos, based on a story by Robert Katz and George Pan Cosmatos

The Cassandra Crossing qualifies as a gift from the cinematic gods for me.  I randomly came across the Blu-ray Disc (from Shout! Factory, a double feature with The Domino Principle which will make an appearance on this list shortly).

From the director who nine years later would direct Rambo: First Blood Part II, then later Tombstone, this thriller starts on a high note and charges full steam ahead, going off the tracks (pun intended) in spectacular fashion - in a good way.




A pair of Swedish terrorists attempt to blow up a hospital, and accidentally expose themselves to a deadly, biological weapon.  One of them gets out alive, and makes his getaway on a train bound from Geneva for Paris.  Burt Lancaster is an American General charged with stopping him, and keeping the disease contained at all costs.  Aboard the train is famed neurosurgeon Richard Harris along with his on-again-off-again ex-wide Sophia Loren.  They are joined by heiress Ava Gardner who has boy-toy Martin Sheen in tow, Lee Strasberg as an watch peddler and O.J. Simpson as a "priest".

Everything that can go wrong, does, and is punctuated by a brilliant Jerry Goldsmith score as the train heads for Poland and a bridge that may or may not remain standing when it passes over it.

I was truly not expecting this movie to be so good.  It was a random grab from the library that turned into a surprise gem, and is about to join my collection.  The print is great, and this is one movie you won't want to miss out on.  Expect it to make my discoveries list at the end of the year.




HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2

2015
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky 
Written by Robert Smigel & Adam Sandler

Sequel to the 2012 animated film that sees Adam Sandler as a vampire running a hotel for monsters whose daughter falls for a human, now sees him a grandfather trying to get the "fangs" out of his grandson who may or may not be a vampire.



Definitely not as charming as the first film, and falls under the "is-what-it-is" category.




THE DOMINO PRINCIPLE

1977
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by Adam Kennedy based on his novel

The second feature on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray along with The Cassandra Crossing was not nearly as good as the first feature.

Gene Hackman is recruited from prison by a covert government agency to carry out an assassination. When his actions result in the death of his bunk mate (Mickey Rooney), well things just begin spiraling out of control from there.




While not as sappy, preachy or heavy-handed as other Stanley Kramer pictures (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner anyone?), the film really doesn't amount to much of a paranoid thriller as the makers intended. Hackman, as always, is solid, and Rooney for his small part hit his marks beautifully.  Otherwise though, it is fairly forgettable.




MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS

2015
Directed by Wes Ball
Screenplay by T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner

I like the first Maze Runner quite a bit.  It surprised me.  Yes, it was another dystopian thriller where teens must rise up and take their place as "the chosen ones", but it had some twists and turns and was a solid directing effort.




The sequel, well, not so much.  I didn't care about any of the protagonists and it felt like we've seen all these plot points (heading for a safe zone, freedom fighters, escaping a big bad) so many other times, and so much better in every other case.

There will be more of these for sure.  Hopefully it's a series that will end quickly and painlessly.




PADDINGTON

2015
Directed by Paul King
Written by Paul King from a screen story by Hammish McColl and Paul King
Based on the character crated by Michael Bond

Paddington is a picture I regret missing when it played in theaters, and seeing it on Disc I am regretting missing it even more.  A delightful family film that doesn't take itself too seriously, and stays pretty true to the source material. It's made even better by a scene-chewing Nicole Kidman.




It's worth noting the score by Nick Urata.




CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

2016
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Based on the comic book by Mark Millar, and characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Another week, another superhero movie in theaters.  Unlike Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Civil War does practically the same story (government distrusts heroes, hero battles hero), but unlike the DC film, Marvel (as usual) gets everything right!




Sure the addition of Spider-man is bogged down by some obvious demands made from Sony in order for Marvel to get their superstar character as part of the MCU, but who cares.  While not as solid as The Winter Soldier, Civil War manages to tell an adult story while keeping the lighthearted tone of a comic book fable.  The battle at the airport alone is worth the price of admission.




INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3

2015
Written and Directed by Leigh Whannell

So another kid gets a nasty ghost haunting them after trying to speak to their dead mother.




The first two Insidious installments were pretty scary.  I remember having to turn the lights on during both of them and walking around to keep calm.  Chapter 3 has a been-there-done-that vibe to it, relying too heavily on the jump scares and not enough on actual story.  In the long run, this chapter ends up to be quite dull.




BODY HEAT

1981
Written and Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Last but not least is a movie I have been intending for years to see, but somehow it took me this long.  I even purchased the Blu-ray Disc back in September intending to watch it that night, and well...didn't happen. That is until now.




Making up for lost time, this homage to Double Indemnity has lawyer William Hurt falling for, and being manipulated perfectly by Femme Fatale Kathleen Turner who is at her Film Noir best.  That sultry voice is just perfect for this type of film.

Hurt has a cocky intelligence about him that allows us to realize that this is one smart guy, who let himself be suckered by a beautiful woman.  It's a modern Noir that definitely has a reverence for the films that inspired it.


Apr 3, 2016

My 2015 Film Discoveries - Part 2

My poor neglected blog.  This past year has put a damper on keeping this site up-to-date, so it's time to get things back the way they should be.  What better way to get things back moving than with the continuation of my film discoveries list from 2015 (ok, so a little late in the year but whatever).

As always, part one was posted on the Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog, and here is a quick rundown of the list of titles.

     BORN FREE
     THE THREE CABALLEROS
     THE STEEL HELMET
     ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS
     BREAKIN'
     THE GUILTY

2015 was a weak film watching year for me (same reasons for the blog neglect) yet I still managed to compile a solid list of discoveries. I'm always coming across titles that confuse me as to why I am only now getting the opportunity to view them.  There are a couple of this list that should have been watched years ago, but better late than never.





MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937; Directed by Leo McCarey)

This film has been on my to-be-watched list for the longest time, and thankfully The Criterion Collection put out a gorgeous Blu-ray Disc edition of it (as they always do) which is now a part of my film library.

It is common for children to have to move back into their parent's home for periods of time (I've had to do it twice thanks to strange circumstances that could not be avoided), but what about when the parents have to move in with their children?  Let's face it, we get used to our own space and ways, and even the best of loved ones can be disruptive.

Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play an elderly couple who can no longer afford to keep their home, and must call upon their children to take them in as they are about to become homeless.  They have waited until the last possible second to tell them, and while some of the offspring are supportive, there are a couple who are put off with the idea of having to help their troubled parents out.

What follows are the struggles each party has with the new situation.  To make it worse, the parents are split up because none of the children can handle having both of them at the same time.  It's a bittersweet and often uncomfortable look at aging, and what happens when you lose everything and have to adjust.  This movie has become even more important in the post-recession society.  You will also more-than-likely call your parents after viewing.




THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969; Directed by Robert Butler)

From depressing to something on the completely opposite end of the spectrum.  Here we have a pre-cursor to the TV show Chuck.  It features Kurt Russell as a teen whose mind is fused with a computer, and hilarity ensues.

This is part of the Dexter Riley "Trilogy" of Disney films starring Russell that is set at Medfield College.  It recently got a great Blu-ray Disc upgrade as a Disney Movie Club exclusive, the only Dexter movie to receive that treatment - so far.  It's a fun blast-from-the-past that exemplifies everything that was great about those early Disney movies.  Also worth mentioning are the bad guys - led by Cesar Romero - who eventually get covered in colorful paint for their evil deeds. It is Disney after all.




BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956; Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville)

I love French New Wave Cinema, and thanks to the Criterion Collection, we get gorgeous prints of these excellent films easily accessible on Disc.

Roger Duchesne is the "Bob" from the title, an old gangster and gambler who is down-on-his-luck, and even though he's advised by many to stay clean, he decides to pull off one last heist - of a casino - to help him finally escape his life misfortunes.

It's the portrayal of Bob that keeps you engaged with this film, and while you think you know what's going to happen, the ending will surprise you.  Definitely worth checking out.




AMERICA, AMERICA (1963; Directed by Elia Kazan)

This stark, gritty, gorgeously shot black-and-white film tells the story of a young Anatolian Greek who suffers every which way possible, and then some, to get to the promised land - the United States of America.

With all the anti-immigration talk that seeps into the news these days, it's nice to see a film like this that chronicles the struggle of someone who wants to make something of themselves, and dreams the American dream (no political message or shots at any political figures intended with that statement).

This was a personal film for Kazan, and you can tell just by watching it and also by the fact that he introduces himself by name in the narration, and reads off the credits personally.




CRACK-UP (1946; Directed by Irving Reis)

It wouldn't be a discoveries list without the inclusion of at least one Film Noir title.

Pat O'Brien is a vet who has a breakdown when he experiences a train-wreck, EXCEPT that it seems the wreck in question never actually happened.

Could it be a master plot to discredit him, or is he indeed losing his mind?  You'll have to watch it to find out.  It's the kind of simple Noir story that has you questioning everything, even though you can pretty much assume what is going to happen.




DOLLS (1987; Directed by Stuart Gordon)

A pair of abusive parents and their daughter get stranded at a house owned by a kindly elderly couple, located in the middle of nowhere during a nasty storm.  Eventually they are joined by a hapless motorist who had the pleasant misfortune to pick up a pair of extremely obnoxious punk-rock women.  The couple own an intense doll collection, enough to creep anybody out.  This is a horror movie, so there is more to this couple and the dolls than meets the eye,

Director Stuart Gordon has a CV of solid horror films (Re-Animator and From Beyond to name a couple) and this is ranks as one of his best.  It doesn't take itself too seriously, has some fun effects and the characters are so over-the-top, you look forward to certain ones meeting their demise.  You'll never be able to look at a doll the same way again.

Thanks to the team at Scream Factory, this film has received their special deluxe Blu-ray Disc treatment with an excellent transfer and several great special features.  Keep them coming Scream Factory because I will just keep buying them.

Jan 8, 2015

My 2014 Film Discoveries - Part 2



Happy (belated) New Year!

Yes it's 2015, and thanks to my good friend Rupert Pupkin over at the Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog, it means taking part in the annual tradition of highlighting older film discoveries for me from the past year.

This is part 2 (of 3...with a possible 4th depending on my mood and the reaction), and part 1 can be seen on Rupert's must-read blog HERE.

A quick rundown of my part 1 titles:

THE BABY (1973)
JUST ONE OF THE GUYS (1985)
RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985)
TESTAMENT (1983)
MAD HOUSE (1974)
and
EASY MONEY (1948)

This was a really good film watching year for me. My watching numbers were up (thanks to the website Letterboxd it is easier to keep track) and although an employment situation and heavy travel took me away from seeing a lot of newer films towards the end of the year (right now the chances that I will be able to do a 2014 Top 10 list in a reasonable time frame are slim) my discoveries list was bursting at the seams.

So on to the list!



THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1971; Directed by Anthony Harvey)

This title popped up on my Netflix Instant Streaming recommendations and I was immediately intrigued by the premise and the picture did NOT disappoint.

George C. Scott is a millionaire and well-respected former lawyer and judge who following the death of his wife retreats into a fantasy world where he believes he is the real Sherlock Holmes. His brother (Lester Rawlins) wants to gain control over the family fortune and wants to have Scott committed. Several attempts to do so have failed so he employs psychiatrist Joanne Woodward whose name just so happens to be Dr. Mildred Watson!

The sensible Dr. Watson is charmed by Scott's Sherlock fascination and takes it upon herself to cure him but then finds herself slipping very quickly under his spell and into his fantasy as the two of them travel around New York to find Scott's imagined Moriarty nemesis. Along the way they come into contact with a lovable gang of misfits, some who realize who Scott thinks he is, and others who don't but go along for the ride anyway.

I was completely enchanted by this film, and Woodward and Scott's performances are exceptional. While I won't reveal the ending, I will say that it leaves a lot up to the imagination and I was on the edge of my seat hoping that what the characters were waiting for was actually going to happen. It's the only way this movie could end, and it left me completely enamored with it. Easily my favorite discovery of the year!

Oh yeah and John Barry scored the film - an added bonus.




O.C. AND STIGGS (1985; Directed by Robert Altman)

Robert Altman has his way with the 1980s teen comedy, turning the genre on its ear in a delightful absurd fashion.

The O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neil Barry) of the title have it out for the Schwab family, a picture-perfect American middle class family. They spend the entire movie plotting crazy schemes to embarrass and humiliate the Schwabs.

Doing some extra reading I discovered this movie was a bomb when it was first released and was considered one of Altman's worst. I think it is better watching it with the passage of time because it struck me as a crazy deconstruction of the 80s teen genre (which I do enjoy) and clearly the intelligent Altman touch shines through during the on-screen mania. I had a really good time with this.





THE HARDER THEY COME (1972; Directed by Perry Henzell)

This 1972 Jamaican film is about a young man who moves to the big city with dreams of becoming a Reggae star. He has talent, but after falling in with a corrupt record producer who keeps him from being a hit he turns to a life of extreme violent crime which in the long run turns this one-hit wonder into a raging musical and criminal success.

It's kind of like Bonnie and Clyde (without Bonnie obviously) in that this man's future is murky at best given the extremes of his criminal actions. It's a gritty and realistically shot film where many of the scenes are heartbreaking as we watch him try to make something of himself in a society that is doing everything possible to keep him impoverished. His hit song is played over-and-over again, but that's okay because it's great! It will get stuck in your head, guaranteed.




THE CARD [a.k.a. THE PROMOTER] (1952; Directed by Ronald Neame)

Alec Guinness plays a young man from a poor family with ambitious dreams. He's intelligent, and manages to snake his way into society and the wealth that comes with it from some very smart moves as well as luck that pushes him up the social ladder.

He may be smart, but he has his weaknesses and in this case that comes in the form of a young woman played by Glynis Johns who knows how to spend money all too well. He manages to break off his relationship with her before she drags him back into poverty, but this being the movies she of course re-appears later in his life to complicate things.

An enjoyable movie thanks especially to Guinness' performance which has you wanting him to succeed from the moment he first appears on screen. Johns is also excellent.




SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON (2002; Directed by Kelly Asbury & Lorna Cook)

I'm kind of breaking the rules with this one a little but, so let's call this "rounding down". Rupert's usual guidelines for discoveries is anything pre-2000, but this picture was too good for me not to make an exception (and it's only 2 years over). Rules are sometimes meant to be broken after all.

I remember when this came out over the Memorial Day weekend of 2002 and I believe it was up against Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones at the box office. I usually try to see everything - especially DreamWorks and Disney animated features - but there was something about the advertising campaign for this as well as of course Star Wars opening that made me miss it. It somehow eluded me until now and has skyrocketed to being my favorite DreamWorks animation feature.

It's the story of a wild stallion in the Old West that is captured by humans who seek to tame him, but this horse has a independent spirit that can't be broken. First taken by the Calvary, then by Native Americans, then as a work horse, we are led on a fabulous journey where the animals have personality and most importantly, they are animals and don't talk to the humans. The film is narrated by the thoughts of the horse (Matt Damon) and I found the narration, the animation style and the overall approach to this story to be near perfect! I think I've used the phrase "being enchanted" by a film already in this list, but I have to use it again because this film completely won me over. This is my second favorite discovery of the year behind They Might Be Giants.




ANGEL FACE (1952; Directed by Otto Preminger)

Angel Face made an appearance on this blog earlier in the year as part of my involvement in Noirvember as a "Femme Fatale Friday" highlight. It's so good I also felt it deserved a spot on my discoveries list.

This is a fantastic Film Noir that opens with an ambulance driver played by Robert Mitchum responding to the near death of a Beverly Hills woman. At first I automatically thought that someone - namely the father (played by Herbert Marshall) - was trying to murder the woman for her money (this is Film Noir after all) but nope, the story stems around her messed up Stepdaughter played expertly by Jean Simmons who doesn't like people getting between her and the men she loves. She is willing to kill to protect that love, even if it means the death of the person she loves as well.

Mitchum has plans to break free of his bland ambulance job and open his own garage, but his character is ultimately pretty lazy and lacks any sort of ambition other than talking about breaking free. He falls in with Simmons and even points out to her face in one moment that he thinks she has murder plans for her stepmother. The relationship lands him in court on a charge of murder and well...it also lands him - literally - somewhere else but I can't go into detail on that because that would ruin a fabulous and shocking ending.

The key to this movie is Simmons who is so beautiful yet so obviously disturbed that she inspires sympathy even while it is obvious she should be locked up somewhere in a strait jacket.

A great Noir from an expert director in the genre (Otto Preminger) that should be watched by any means necessary.




NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979; Directed by Ted Kotcheff)

I used to write "coming up next" blurbs for a Canadian cable movie channel (Showcase Action which I believe is just called Action now), and North Dallas Forty aired regularly on it. My voice-over talent would always change up my copy for this movie with "they play football a lot and swear a whole lot more." I hadn't seen the movie then so I always imagined it was some sort of raunchy 70s comedy (also, take a look at the one-sheet above). When I finally got around to it this year, I was surprised by the dramatic tone of the picture.

Nick Nolte plays for a team in Dallas that stands in for the Cowboys (when you watch the film you can see why the NFL or the Cowboys wouldn't let them use their brands or logos). He's an aging player who is fighting to keep his spot which is in jeopardy thanks to a bum knee for which he takes painkillers for. The coach (G.D. Spradlin) doesn't like Nolte's non-conformist attitude and is constantly making his professional life miserable.

When not on the field, Nolte and his fellow players engage in plenty of sex, drugs and alcohol. It's a down and dirty look at professional sports, one that is not at all flattering to the NFL or the Cowboys, and Nolte is solid in the role.

And yes, they do play football and swear a lot.  My voice-over talent wasn't wrong on that front.

That's it for part 2, look for part 3 in the next few weeks.

Nov 21, 2014

Noirvember: Femme Fatale Friday - When Claire met Lawrence, Claire Trevor in BORN TO KILL (1947)


Claire Trevor's Helen is just one of many very bad people in Robert Wise's hard-boiled and unrelenting Born to Kill. Much like Gloria Grahame in Human Desire (the subject of last week's Femme Fatale Friday post), Trevor doesn't start out with any indication of being a Femme Fatale, but it is a man - Lawrence Tierney - that brings it out in her. It is a match that won't end well for either of them.

Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney play two very rotten eggs
Lawrence Tierney is as bad as they get, probably one of the baddest that I can recall from a Film Noir and that is saying a lot given that it is a genre with some outstanding villainous portrayals from the likes of Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark. It is a one-note performance that works because it is a one-note character. You get a bad vibe from him the moment you lay eyes on him which is at a craps table making eyes with Claire Trevor. While he is visually flirting with her, he sees an ex-girlfriend happily gallivanting about the casino with a new boyfriend. His face instantly turns sour, so sour that it is unnerving. He doesn't like being made a chump of which he sees her hooking up with this new guy to be doing, so he kills them both. To further enhance his evil nature, when roommate and confidant Elisha Cook tells him he can't just go around killing people who upset him he answers "why can't I?"  Here's a guy who thinks murder is a reasonable act he is entitled to.

When Tierney gets mad, he kills
Claire Trevor is in Reno to get a divorce so she can get married to a rich man, and the murders happen on her last night before leaving town. She stops by the house and stumbles on the two dead bodies (enshrouded in deep Film Noir shadows) but instead of freaking out or going to the authorities, she quietly closes the door and goes about her business. Later in a scene later that mirrors Tierney's reaction to "you can't go around and kill people", she casually tells her foster sister about how she came across the bodies in a tone that would be more appropriate to someone finding a dead squirrel in the park and describing how she stepped over it so as to not dirty her shoes. She's a cold fish alright, a personality that is going to become more apparent the more she engages with Tierney.

Lawrence Tierney spies Claire Trevor at a craps table
Tierney and Trevor are reunited during travel back to San Francisco, with Tierney making the clam that he knows what he wants and gets it. In this case what he wants and will have - sort of - is Trevor. Even as Trevor is disgusted by this brute of a man forcing himself on her, it is obvious she is also extremely attracted to him. This is worrisome because we as an audience feel that this woman is way too refined and sophisticated for this primal animal who would probably beat or kill her for whatever reason he sees fit. What we discover though is that she is more like him than first appearances suggest, however just not so openly violent. No, she uses her brains and resources to make his and other's lives miserable in this picture. Her feelings and actions are so complex I don't even think she knows what side she is on. She seems so set on ruining, then having, then protecting, then turning in Tierney to the authorities that who knows what she intends the final result to be. She's a mess and he's a mess and everyone around them are merely pawns in a dangerous game of wills.

Lawrence Tierney is a brute force in 'Born to Kill'
While Tierney displays his brutality out in the open for all to see, Trevor has hidden her true nature well but struggles to do so once she comes in contact with Tierney. He keeps reminding her that she is exactly like him, someone pushing their way into wealth and society from the bottom ladder rung which brings out her claws. She turns him away but then gets jealous when he marries her foster sister. She looks the part of social butterfly and he doesn't. On his wedding day while everyone else is finely dressed in formal wear, he wears a common, bland, everyday suit. She wears a crown like a queen (and she's not even the bride) complete with a veil which can't be coincidental. He's a brute force, she's sneaky and manipulative and I would say her approach is much more acceptable and successful than his. She has him trapped knowing that he has committed a murder with a detective hot on his heels while he is willing to openly pull a gun or beat on anyone that crosses him or makes him look bad. She could finish this guy off and send him packing for jail anytime she wants, yet doesn't.

Tierney wears a plain suit to his wedding while Trevor wears a crown
I haven't even really gotten into too much detail on some of the other bad characters like a morally corrupt Detective willing to obstruct the murder case for the right amount of money, or Elisha Cook who is willing to kill to protect his friend. As mentioned above, it's a hard-boiled picture with a wide cast of shady characters. They barely scratch the surface though when it comes to Trevor and Tierney.

Trevor isn't above paying off a detective to obstruct justice, and he isn't above asking for more money to do so
Trevor and Tierney make the perfect lethal pair in this picture. He gets jealous and kills a man - his friend - for thinking he is two timing him when really he is about to help Tierney out of an incredible jam. When Trevor gets jealous she blocks him from making social inroads (like taking over the family business) even while carrying on a torrid love affair with him. She lures him into a situation to reveal that affair to ruin his marriage and turn him into the authorities effectively cutting them both out of their cushy social prospects. While he gets angry and acts on impulse, she uses her manipulative ways to get what she needs when the situation calls for it. They both know what they want and how to get it, she's just more smart about it but waits too long and to play her cards and everything unravels for both of them.

Lawrence Tierney with 'friend' Elisha Cook
Of course it means that both of them are doomed and only they can be the tool of the other's demise, but I'd like to think had Trevor not met Tierney she would have married the rich guy and had a good life in high society. Tierney is pure evil and that evil nature is dangerously attractive to Trevor. It brings out her inner demons that she then unleashes on everyone. Her greatest flaw is that she can't make up her mind - the safe, rich life or the dangerous liaison with Tierney. Of course this is Film Noir, so the more dangerous path is always the one taken.


Nov 14, 2014

Noirvember: Femme Fatale Friday - Gloria Grahame in HUMAN DESIRE (1954)


Gloria Grahame in Human Desire is a woman thrust into the Femme Fatale role by her boorish husband played by Broderick Crawford. He's an older man (there is a lot of discussion about older men with younger women in this picture) that is prone to temper tantrums, heavy drinking and jealous outbursts when it comes to his much younger wife. She's a seemingly vulnerable, sexy woman who is trapped in a thankless marriage with a man who physically and verbally abuses her as well as anyone who comes between them. As we will soon find out it is his actions that inadvertently thrusts her into the arms of good guy Glenn Ford.

Gloria Grahame shows Broderick Crawford - and more importantly us - a whole lot of leg
Grahame's sexual allure is transmitted blatantly to the audience during her first scene with Crawford. He's been fired from his job at the railroad (also where Ford works) and sits morosely on a bed while Grahame flashes him some leg mere inches from his face while showing off a new pair of stockings she has acquired. That leg really stands out as Grahame remains in that position for a long period of screen time, and Crawford barely registers it as he is stewing about his bleak employment situation. We on the other hand, can't keep our eyes off it. That stocking moment really sticks in the audience's mind as later she is seen pulling off those stockings, then in another sequence as she gets up from the floor, the line of those stockings are clearly seen on her legs for a flash. You may be thinking this obsession over the stockings is some sort of perverted quirk in my personality, but in my defense I am claiming that it's director's Fritz Lang's way of having Grahame seduce us as she does Ford in the picture and planting that sexual allure in our minds.

Gloria Grahame's sweater is working its magic on Glenn Ford
Grahame is going to need to flash more than some leg to get Ford to pull off her dirty deeds for her. Ford has a younger woman literally throwing herself at him from the moment she lays eyes on him (again, older man, younger woman dynamics at play here) yet he doesn't seem to clue into this at all. So what does Grahame do to lure him in completely? She happily pulls down her top to show bruises on her shoulder from a beating that Crawford gave her earlier, promoting herself as a 'damsel in distress' (which she is) and Ford is hooked. Grahame has this way of portraying vulnerability that is hard to resist, and we want her to be with Ford even though she is a married woman and it will mean trouble for Ford.

Broderick Crawford, Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford
As I mentioned, Crawford has driven her into the Femme Fatale position thanks to his unreasonable behavior and criminal actions. First he forces her to travel with him and to convince a railway executive (and close friend of hers) to get him his job back - which she does. However she takes 5 hours to do it and it's obvious to Crawford that she went the extra mile to get him that job back. Grahame didn't even want to go in the first place so in our minds Crawford has nobody to blame but himself for this betrayal. In a jealous rage Crawford beats Grahame viciously then decides to do the unthinkable and kills the executive while traveling home by train. He forces Grahame to write a note that implicates her as the murderer, then holds that note over her as blackmail so that she won't even think of ever leaving him. When he sees Ford smoking near the scene of the crime, he sends Grahame out to divert him away so he can make his getaway. By doing so, he has once again unwittingly set himself up for betrayal from his young wife who Ford is taken with and they kiss before they parting ways. Ford finds out quickly that she is married to Crawford and later lies - without prodding - to keep her from being implicated in the murder. It is hard to blame Grahame for hating her husband so much when he forces her into uncompromising situations and beats her up and anyone else that even speaks to her. Gloria Grahame also might want to be careful teaming up with Glenn Ford and Fritz Lang in a Noir picture as not only does she get physically abused here, but in a previous picture, The Big Heat (1953), she gets a pot of hot coffee thrown in her face. Lang sure knows how to make Grahame the perfect Noir victim and bring out that vulnerability she relayed so well. She is a woman that the audience sympathizes with easily.

Gloria Grahame drives Broderick Crawford insane with jealousy
Grahame has a scene with Ford that makes it crystal clear why she was attracted to the lout Crawford in the first place. When Ford fails to capitalize on something (and I can't get into what without completely spoiling the picture) she goes after his 'manhood'. She also has a speech about a past attraction to someone that was a much older man with influence and money, and how she tried to get him to notice her and when he did, that changed everything for her. Grahame likes men who are men, and Crawford has all the bad characteristics of a man. He has a temper, he's possessive and when his position as a 'man' is threatened (like when he loses his job, or his beautiful wife cheats on him) he uses violence and blackmail to get his way. He has gone way too far into his primal male state and now she's trapped. He's an easy man to hate and seeing how Glenn Ford has treated the other young woman, you know he'd be better for her. Is she good for him?

Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford's not-so-secret secret affair
I was rooting for Grahame through most of the picture, that is until she veers into full-fledged Fatale mode. She's beautiful, and no matter how 'easy' it ends up she may be, she doesn't deserve to be beaten nor blackmailed for a murder she did not commit. You desperately want her to get away from Crawford, and almost side with her when she introduces her 'solution' to Ford so that they can be together. Ford is such a nice guy that he makes a rare decision for a smitten male in a Film Noir picture, a move that turns the tide of audience opinion against Grahame's character. By making Crawford so violent and almost caveman-like, it really helps in director Lang's presentation of having Grahame not only seduce Glenn Ford, but us the audience as well. It worked on me.

Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford take their relationship to the next level
When offered the choice between good girl Kathleen Case or sultry Femme Fatale Gloria Grahame, it is not hard to see how Glenn Ford was easily taken in by the latter's charms. Case has the 1950s chaste, we'll-get-married-have-2-kids-white-picket-fence-will-have-dinner-ready-when-he-comes-home vibe while Grahame holds the promise of excitement, nightclubs and sex that will occur frequently and probably well BEFORE marriage. Even just a quick introduction to Grahame's female friend in the city tells you what kind of crowd she associates with, the friend is also a stunning blonde in a tight evening gown trying to land herself a rich husband. However Grahame is doomed and a lost cause whether she deserves it or not and if Ford does end up with her (which I won't reveal) he would be dooming himself as well.