DVR Theater: Sssh! Silent Film Edition

In my guise as Professor Film Boy, I have to admit that one of my weak spots is the silent era. I’ve seen most of the major titles of the era, sure, but every now and then as I’m thumbing through one of the Kevin Brownlow histories or rewatching some old documentary on silents (like the excellent 13 part “Hollywood” series from Thames TV in 1980 and golly gee, it’s ALL ON YOUTUBE and I had NO idea, really I didn’t…..), I’ll come across some title or sets of titles I feel like I ought to go back and watch.

First up was the 1924 adventure The Sea Hawk, not to be confused with the other adventure film The Sea Hawk from 1940 with Errol Flynn basically playing Sir Francis Drake. The silent version, based on the Rafael Sabatini novel, is the story of Elizabethan era Brit hero-of-the-Armada-battle Oliver Tressilian and how he gets sold into galley slavery by his wicked half-brother to cover up a murder. Well, he escapes (of course), renounces Christianity because of the un-Christian cruelty of the Spanish towards their captives, and converts to Islam (I’m assuming his circumcision took place offscreen and then everyone ate rugelah or baklava or whatever) when joining the Moors, changing his name to Sakr-el-Bahr (The Sea Hawk) and becomes the scourge of Spanish Christian boats everywhere. And then… it’s time for some personal revenge, although as the story plays out, much like Sabatini’s other notable works (Scaramouche and Captain Blood) the issues of forgiveness and redemption loom large.

Fast moving & fun throughout, and with a rather interesting resolution – after all, how would a 1924 work out the religious issues raised by the character’s transformation? Funny… I kept thinking throughout the thing how no studio would touch this story now Continue reading “DVR Theater: Sssh! Silent Film Edition”

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Movies Worth Seeing: The Death Of Stalin (2018)

Yes, every now and then, I manage to stop watching old movies and catch up on some recent ones.

And this one was great – a real must-see item. Incredibly dark and brutally funny, it depicts the panic and power jockeying that took place immediately after Stalin croaked in 1953. While it takes some license with the actual history of Khruschchev’s rise and Beria’s fall, it doesn’t matter. It would be like arguing the levels of historic accuracy versus license in any of the Monty Python films.

And in fact, this film has the feel of one of those extended Python bits that brought in some politics, like the cycling tour episode or even Life of Brian.

A lot of it has to do with the casting, including Python alum Michael Palin as a nervous yet loyal Stalinist Molotov (and that part IS historically accurate.)

The true standouts in the cast:  Jeffrey Tambor as the mealy-mouthed indecisive Malenkov, barely a few steps above Tambor’s old Hank Kingsley character from Larry Sanders, used as a puppet of sorts by Lavrentiy Beria, the monster who ran Stalin’s secret police, brilliantly played by Simon Russell Beale.

Steve Buscemi plays Khruschchev as a fast-talking joke telling cynical realist, probably not too far from the truth, really.

And then as things have been zooming along with painfully hilarious scenes of party conformity and paranoia with many laugh out loud moments, Jason Isaacs shows up as sort of a superhero version of Marshall Zhukov and is just a flat out riot.

Smartly, director Armando Iannucci did not have his cast speak in Russian accents – they speak in the mix of British or American accents they bring to the table, or in the case of Isaacs, using an alternate Brit accent (Yorkish) since he thought it would make him sound tougher.

So with the dialogue sounding contemporary, petty and everyday… it all gets hysterically funny.

The brilliance of this movie is how it manages to depict the horrors of the Soviet regime and the constant waste of individual value and life – while managing to be amazingly funny. It becomes a textbook example of how to successfully pull off dark satire, using some of the darkest realities from history as its source material.

Russia banned it too! So fuck them!

I realize I don’t go to the movies very often anymore for reasons I’ve written about in earlier blog posts & reviews. Back in the day when I’d see 40-50 movies a year in theaters, this would have been one of the movies to make my top handful by the time the year-in-review rolled around. This year I didn’t waste my time with those other 39-49 films this year and saw this one this evening.

And I’ll be recommending it to everyone.

DVR Theater: Don’t Trust Anyone Edition

If I’m watching a movie where the characters keep messing with each others’ minds, I should be enjoying the experience of having my own mind messed with.

I appreciate a movie that can fool me. I’m always trying to outguess them, either solving the mystery halfway through or even predicting a gag here and there.

So the first time through movies like Sleuth or The Usual Suspects or The Last of Sheila are a great joy – because there’s nothing I respect more than the movie that can fool me. Granted, Sleuth & Sheila fooled me when I was a kid and Usual Suspects almost fooled me… yeah, that’s right. There’s a very strong tell about halfway through the movie.

Sometimes the tell can be the casting, if you’re up on the inside jokes. That’s what gave away Dead Again to me.

Games (1967) stars James Caan and Katherine Ross as a rich young art collecting NYC couple who enjoy playing scary practical jokes on people. Simone Signoret inserts herself into their lives and joins in. And then these punkings continue until they get very much out of hand, involving the murder of a creepy grocery boy (Don Stroud), paranoia and the occult.

BUT as with Dead Again, I figured the ending because of the tell. Still not a bad film about no one trusting each other. The one thing that made me doubt the (correct) solution I’d figured about halfway in was a lack of what I felt was a reasonable motive. When the motive was revealed, it still really didn’t add up. I can’t say more without major spoilers, sorry.

Well, maybe one major spoiler for anyone who remembers Simone Signoret in the wonderful French film Diabolique.  Actually, just making the connection is spoiler enough.

Also – an excellent TV remake of Dialbolique starring Joan Hackett, Tuesday Weld (in the Signoret role) and Sam Waterson is on youtube. Reflections of Murder, directed by John Badham. Thumbs up!

Onwards to a very relaxed & realistic Cold War spy drama, a purposeful flipside to the gadget-and-superheroesque Bond/Flint/Matt Helm type stuff filling screens around the same time – The Quiller Memorandum from 1966 features George Segal as an American operative put to work by Alex Guinness in West Berlin to smoke out a nest o’Nazis led by Max Von Sydow while getting involved with eye candy Senta Berger. The striking thing in this one is just how bad Segal is at his job – he gets captured easily, finds himself at the mercy of his enemies repeatedly, and totally misreads the people around him, both friend and foe. The pacing is slow, deliberately, and the affect of everyone is extremely methodical and calm. The screenplay by Harold Pinter is terse, intelligent and direct. I’m so used to seeing Segal in comedy that he seemed miscast, although that makes him the perfect spy, I guess. No one would suspect him.

This one sits on the Cold War spy movie scale as less depressing than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and certainly less ridiculous and silly than ANY of the Bond movies. It’s also better than the Harry Palmer series, since it manages to depict the tedium of intelligence work without taking the self-hatred of the main character so far as to make the audience wonder why they should care either. The cast is great, as well as some wonderful locations in West Berlin used well. And while not approaching the total paranoid nihilism of 1970s spy thrillers like Three Days Of The Condor, Quiller creates a similar cynical atmosphere where our central character really can’t trust anyone around him.

So a thumbs up to Quiller, and a meh to Games, I guess.

DVR Theater: Noir Cops In Love Edition

By random chance or by synchronicity, I watched two old noirs where cops fell in love with the wrong woman (or “dame” as the dialogue would usually put it.) And both of them were directed by the same guy, the prolific Joseph H. Lewis.

First up, a nicely restored print of The Man Who Cheated Himself, a 1950 entry with Lee J. Cobb as the cop secretly in love with socialite Jane Wyatt. He witnesses her panic-shoot her was-gonna-divorce-him husband and helps her cover up the crime. But his newly minted cop detective younger brother, played by John Dall, follows the case and (of course) begins to figure things out.

Some nice photography around San Francisco from the era. You can tell it’s decades ago by the affordable rents, lack of needles and human waste in the streets, etc. But I digress.

Dall makes a good plucky somewhat-innocent cop slowly learning of his big bro’s corruption. I always thought he was an underused actor on film. He’s great as the alpha-closet case killer in Hitchcock’s Rope, and in his earlier work with Joseph Lewis in the excellent cult noir Gun Crazy.

Weird to see Cobb in a dark romantic lead after all the years of seeing him play loudmouth yelling bullies, bigots and thugs, but he’s used well here – basically a scowly old cop impossibly in love with Wyatt as she coldly uses him to get away with her crime. And you thought Spock got his lack of emotion from his dad.

This one is in the public domain and runs on youtube, if you want a quick fix of it.

The Big Combo from 1955 stars Cornel Wilde as the cop, his real-life wife Jean Wallace as the gangster’s good-girl girlfriend looking for escape, and a wonderful Richard Conte as the smooth-talking ass-covering mob boss. Along for the ride are Brian Donlevy as Conte’s former boss now grumbling underling, Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman as their pair of muscle, and assorted wonderful character actors like Jay Adler, John Hoyt and Ted de Corsia sprinkled throughout.

Storywise, this one drags a bit – some elements get overly complicated, but it’s got some great moments. A lot of Conte’s scenes with his smug and smooth confidence are wonderful. The use of sound with Donlevy’s character (I’ll avoid spoilers) is clever.

It’s an okay movie story and pace wise… but Good GOD, the cinematography from longtime noir vet and all around black-and-white GENIUS John Alton is amazing. The uses of light and shadow, of fog effects, of night scenes… you name it. Alton’s at the top of his game here, which is saying something. His textbook on cinematography, a staple of 1960s-1970s film schools, is available online as well. It’s worth a read, not only for the tips on shooting film which can still be applied today in the age of CGI and video, but also as a nice tour through a lot of Alton’s work.

Onwards through the stack…. next up, a pair of 1960s items…

 

Two Silly Dick Powell Movies

In my quest to plow through a fully loaded DVR, I began with a double feature of a pair of light hearted comedies starring Dick Powell that ran on TCM recently.

First up was You Never Can Tell, where Powell plays a murdered German Shepard who returns to Earth as a human hard boiled detective to catch his killer. Along for the ride is a human-ized dead race horse (Joyce Holden) as his gal (filly?) Friday. Powell parodies his Philip Marlowe bit here, acting the tough detective while snacking on dog food, chatting with other dogs and avoiding the revenge of the cat he’d chased in his previous life. A crazy millionaire died and left King the dog all his money, which set him up for murder by a fortune hunter, so the Lion King of the animal afterlife (in a rather bizarre negative-filmed scene) sends him & the filly back to Earth to capture his killer & rescue his former loyal mistress (Peggy Dow) from suspicion of the crime.

I like the concept & a lot of the gags work despite how utterly stupid they are. Powell & Holden are both very good acting like animals annoyed with their human bodies. As usual, we have cat-as-annoyance, however, something that always irks me as crazy cat man. Mostly, though, the ending is good but needed a better pay-off, not only for the come-uppance of the villain (which halfway comes from left field) but also in what is often the central problem in any of the dead-character-comes-back-to-Earth movies like Here Comes Mr. Jordan or Heaven Can Wait: How does the dead character wind up in a happy ending with whoever the love interest is? Do they become a different person? Do they both die and go to heaven? Or are they doomed to be in separate worlds (what a WONDERFUL uplifting ending, eh?)?

You Never Can Tell handles it pretty well, although without giving too much away… it would have worked better if Powell & Dow turned into dogs instead of staying human.

In Christmas In July, Powell got to play his first role away from the string of Warners musicals he’d been contracted to throughout the 1930s. He still plays the likable young man in this one, an aspiring ad man working at a coffee company. He gets tricked into thinking he won $25,000 in a slogan contest and goes on a spending spree before the inevitable denoument. It’s an early Preston Sturges film, in fact based on the play that brought him to Hollywood. It’s got the Sturges touches of snappy dialogue and silly slapstick, as well as the plot of honesty versus cynicism… and it was okay. I always have mixed reactions to Sturges’ stuff. This one keeps things very simple, but I only smiled, never really laughed. I guess that’s something, tho.

I could run through my reactions to all of Sturges’ work… but that’s something for another time.

I have more DVR to plow through.

Summer of Movies: Art House Edition

Put down that Pabst Blue Ribbon and pick up that Heineken, it’s time for some upper-end, high-falutin’ fancy-schmanzty movies… oh, excuse me – FILMS to discuss in an intelligent and sophisticated manner.

In other words, films where nuthin blow’d up.

I’ve also given up on attending this echelon of moviegoing in person. While attending the supposed cinema-for-smart-people oozes the cultural vibe of avoiding the great unwashed talking on their cellphones throughout the entirety of the latest CGI-loaded comic book-based piece of assembly line formula crap from three different studios pooling their money to make it all back in China, audiences in the art house cinemas have often annoyed me for different reasons.

A lot of the time, it’s the virtue-signalling or hipness-signalling that goes on – to this day, I remember a couple of annoying dudes affecting intellectual edginess going out of their fucking way to laugh, and laugh LOUD – Robert DeNiro laughing at Problem Child in Cape Fear style loud – at the OBVIOUS and overdone supposed shock humor of Man Bites Dog, a French mockumentary about a serial killer that uses up its premise in its first few minutes and totally blows for the following 90. Yeah guys, I get it – you’re supposed to show people you think it’s funny because nothing shocks you, you oh-so-cool cultural trail blazers! Well, except for the endless list of harmless bullshit that you need trigger warnings for.

Save your energy, boys! There’s a repertory cinema up the street showing old romantic comedies and crime movies from the 1930s and 40s that you can hiss sexist-in-2018 dialogue at to demonstrate to everyone around you what an enlightened and superior person you are! I guess culturally we’ve graduated from that particular style of douchebaggery to organizing screenings of stuff like Animal House or Blazing Saddles for the sole purpose of pointing out why we shouldn’t be allowed to laugh at them anymore.

Yes. I hate everyone.

But usually at the cinema I’d most often wind up in, a branch of the Laemmle art house chain in Encino, the audience were mostly locals, which meant a small army of doddering alte kakers understandingly looking for better fare than what’s on the cable, but most often forgetting their hearing aids and repeating “What’d he say? What’d he say?” over and over again, EVEN IN SUBTITLED FILMS.

I used to tell my regular movie freak cohort it felt more like going to temple.

It was more eye-roll inducing than the anger-inducing hipster behavior, but it still interfered with my cinematic experience.

The amazing Cuban restaurant just up the street usually made up for it, tho – even if the movie turned out to be disappointing.

So, it’s been watching the same sort of thing at home, now – lumped in with the modern Hollywood fare I can stand, and with the old movies that escaped my radar that I never get tired of discovering. I guess if I learned to make garlic roast chicken the way they do at Versailles, it’d complete the circle.

Let’s start with a couple of them there foreign French films. Well, the first one might be in French, but it’s all about a bunch of Russian musicians. Le Concert (2009) tells the story of a bunch of former Russian classical musicians who had been shut down and banned by Brezhnev back during a 1980 Soviet crackdown who disguise themselves as the actual orchestra booked to play Paris. Continue reading “Summer of Movies: Art House Edition”

Another Wonderful Movie Website

Go check out Pre-Code.com, a nice site filled with reviews & material on all sorts of pre-production code Hollywood material.

I landed on it while reading about an old Wheeler & Woolsey comedy, Diplomaniacs, which I just sat through.

And as always, they made me appreciate the Marx Brothers even more.

But check out all the material on Pre-Code.com. I might vary in opinion with the reviews, of course, but this guy’s stuff is thorough, detailed and extremely well designed and illustrated. It’s a great place for obscure movie tips.

Summer of Movies: Some ’70s Made-For-TV Youtube Fare

A hearty thank-you and a Derek Jeter gift basket for all the movie nerds who digitized old VHS off-the-air recordings of otherwise unavailable 1970s material and uploaded it to youtube.

There’s a ton of the stuff on there. I’ve only begun to fend my way through it. I’m trying to focus on stuff I’ve never seen, while maybe throwing in a repeated viewing of some fond memory here and there, to maintain some balance.

So I won’t be discussing the big 1970s TV movie titles that spring to most minds whenever the genre is mentioned – no Duel, or Trilogy of Terror, or Satan’s Triangle, or Bad Ronald or Killdozer… at least not YET, since a lot of those are on youtube as well. The majority come from the ABC Movie of the Week series, a 90 minute weekly slot filled by various TV production factories of the day – Universal, Aaron Spelling, etc. Here’s a site that lists ’em all, from 1969 to 1975.

Hell, I’m showing Duel for a class next year. It’s still one of Spielberg’s best.

And battling that lil’ cannibal™ doll was certainly Karen Black’s best. But let’s get to a handful of old TV films I screened recently, most of which are worth checking out.

In Broad Daylight (1971) stars Richard Boone as a recently blinded actor who plots to kill his cheatin’ wife (Stella Stevens) and pin the murder on her lover. In order to pull off the plot, he has to work the entire caper after learning how to independently move around Los Angeles now that he’s blind. Susanne Pleshette plays his counselor, John Marley plays the cop. This one plays out like a really good Alfred Hitchcock hour, and it’s set up in a way that makes you root for Boone to get away with it. Continue reading “Summer of Movies: Some ’70s Made-For-TV Youtube Fare”

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