Sunday, March 27, 2016

Movie Ages: Grace Kelly

I'm fascinated by the universal practice in moviedom of pairing older actors with much younger actresses. Sometimes, this age gap is referenced in the movie itself, or made into the central conflict, but most of the time it's ignored within the cinematic universe. 

If I had to pick one performer that most epitomized this practice, Grace Kelly would be the ideal mascot. In her brief, yet memorable 5 year career, she made 11 movies, before retiring at 26 to take up Princess duties in Monaco. Of those, only two (Dial M for Murder and The Swan) feature love interests who are less that 10 years older than her. Three if we count Mogambo, where Kelly (age 23 at the time) cheats on husband Donald Sinden (age 29) with Clark Gable (age 52). 

As for the rest, she's paired with old hands. And while issues like class, economics, and legalities might be brought up by her partner as potential relationship roadbumps, I don't think age is ever mentioned in her movies. Not much of a biggie when her co-star is the 11-year-older William Holden, but slightly more perturbing when it's 50-somethings like Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby and Gable.

Othello (1965)

This movie made me doubt Laurence Olivier's acting cred. I had to go to youtube and watch clips from Wuthering Heights (1939) to remind myself that yes, Olvier could act. Everyone else was fine, I have nothing praise for the rest of the cast, which included Maggie Smith and Derek Jacobi. But Olivier, oh dear, Olivier...

He was bad. Well, bad doesn't properly convey what's on screen. Grotesque would be the better word for it. And I'm not just referring to the blackface, which in and of itself is gross. I mean, look at it: 


But it's somehow made worse by Olivier's decision to consistently ham his role up. If he was a understated Othello, then the shoe polish makeup, "exotic" clothing, and bare feet would only be in terrible taste. However, by shouting, swooning, and raising his hands as if he were launching into the repetoire of Al Jolson:



his performance goes beyond a fatal case of values dissonance, and into a sickening minstrel show. There is no sign of the subtly and dignity he afforded Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III.This is the ultimate white representation of the Black Man as Savage Inhuman Brute, in all its disgusting inherent racism.


But all this didn't stop Olivier from getting his last Oscar nomination for this....thing. Go fucking figure. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Deathdream (1972)

Deathdream is an effective little metaphor about the Vietnam war, and the trauma it bought to families and veterans, wrapped in a gory reworking of "The Monkey's Paw" with a body count.

Even without the addition of the Tom Savini's creeptastic makeup, lead actor Richard Backus, playing the solider who returns home quite changed, is quite off-putting. He has this uncanny valley face, the type that reminds one of a Ken doll brought to life. In that respect, he reminds a lot of Keir Dullea, whose strangely molded features and slightly off-putting demeanor were put such good use in Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Deathdream director Bob Clark's following feature, the unnerving prototypical slasher Black Christmas (1974). Funnily enough, according to Backus' wikipedia page, he was Dullea's understudy during the original Broadway run of Butterflies are Free. Having difficulty imagining either man playing genuinely nice, non-threatening individuals, but I guess that's acting for ya.


ANYWHO, interesting movie, recommend you check it out if you want a unique and surprisingly moving zombie movie.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Alexander the Great (1956)

In the otherwise sloggy and unmemorable biopic Alexander the Great, which I saw about a year ago, and staring everyone's favorite glowering Welshman Richard Burton (who, according to Look Back in Anger (1959), "knows what it's like to be angry. ANGRY!"), two moments remain stuck in my mind:

1. The scene where a very bearded Fredric March, playing Alexander's dad Philip, does a drunken dance on a hill overlooking the camp.


2. The part where Buuuurton gets into a brief kurfuffle with fellow Welsh actor Stanley Baker. Later, the two would be kinda sorta reunited in the top-notch Zulu (1964), with Baker staring and Burton providing narration.


Other than that, the rest of the movie completely escapes my memory. Except Burton's blonde wig; that thing was the one truly golden object in a nearly 2 1/2 hour checklist of Important Moments in Alexander's Life. Almost makes me want to check out Oliver Stone's lambasted attempt to frame this grandiose historical figure, for comparison's sake. Almost.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

My Favorite Wife (1940)

I'm not the biggest Irene Dunne fan. You might say, "I'm done with Dunne." (Tee hee, puns.) In this movie, she plays Cary Grant’s presumed-dead wife, missing ever since she was swept overboard during an Anthropological expedition seven years before. But on the same day Grant declares her dead and gets married to Gail Patrick, guess who shows up at his honeymoon hotel? 
            An enjoyable movie with a clever set-up, not as funny as I though it would be, but still amusing. Grant's more refrained in his double-taking comic business than usual, with some golden expressions of exasperation. Dunne's OK; as I stated before, she's far from one of my favorite actresses, but I have liked some of the movies she's been in (like The Silver Chord). Here she's smart and sassy, like Joan Blondell with the edges sanded off and waxed. 
            I had no difficulty suspending my disbelief for the sake of Dunne and fellow island playmate Randolph Scott somehow managing to survive on a desert island for seven years. But it was a little more difficult to see how such an amazing tale of survival could escape notice of the press. Nevertheless, one must remember that logic is second fiddle in comedy. There are complications, mistaken identities, deceit, and coincidences all for the sake of conflict, rounded out by a punchline, and caped off by a happy ending, of course. After all, this is Hollywood.

            I guess you have a few hours to kill, you can’t lose with this fine comedy about the marriage, in and out of the courtroom and the bedroom. There's nothing extraordinary about it, but there are a few surprises and funny moments.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) (full)


This is yet another film that has been eclipsed by its remake, in this case the enjoyable 1953 3D House of Wax from 1953, staring Vincent Price. Which is unfortunate, because on its own, The Mystery of the Wax Museum a really fun horror /mystery / comedy/ raunchy Pre-Coder. 


A brief intro: a very talented wax sculptor (Lionel Atwill) loses his is prized London-based wax museum in a blaze set by his money grubbing partner. Twelve years later, in New York City, bodies are mysteriously being stolen from the morgue, and the models in a new wax museum look just like them…

You probably know where this is going, but at a brisk 77 minutes, it's a journey to get to inevitable gory conclusion. Well, not visually gory since this is 1933 after all, but we do get some nasty make-up.

Also worth noting that this is one of the last two-strip Technicolor movies, a process which emphasized red and green; great for flesh tones, not so much at providing a variety of colors, though we do get some gorgeous shadow work, jaw-dropping sets, and eye-popping dresses worn by heroines Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell, as compensation.

 
 

Lionel Atwill is a slyly sinister Mr. Igor, and Ms. Wray once again gets to show off her impressive screaming skills as another damsel in distress. Ms. Farrell was the acting highlight for me, however, as a snappy and tough talking reporter. She also gets to roll off some gem Pre-Code wisecracks, greating a cop reading a dirty mag with a chipper “how’s your sex life?” and responding to Wray’s plans for marriage and children with her own plans: “you raise the kids, I’ll raise the roof.” 




Overall, it's a very fun horror film that doesn't take itself too seriously, but still manages to provide the type of gorgeously-shot chills that early 30s horror epitomized. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Here Comes the Groom (1951)

They don’t make 'em like they used to. This zany Frank Capra-directed comedy offers, among laughs, wisecracks, a wrestling catfight, and a few tunes. It all ends in a climax at the most lavish outdoor wedding imaginable, with the type of inevitable ending you see a mile away, but is winning enough that you don't care.

Bing Crosby stars as a Pete, a reporter writing about war orphans in France.  When he has to return to the States, he decides to adopt two of them, but discovers that he can only keep the children if he gets married within five days. Pete's not worried, however, because has a girl in mind: long-time fiancĂ©e Emmadel (Jane Wyman), whom he decides to surprise by arriving on her doorstep with the tots without notification. She has a surprise for him in turn: tired of waiting for her long absent beau, she has become engaged to her wealthy boss Wilbur (Franchot Tone). The wedding date: in five days.
        
How can I describe this film properly? It feels familiar, kind of a Philadelphia Story rehash, complete with the unfortunate implication that the heroine needs an ex to tell her that she doesn't love the man she's going to marry WITHIN A WEEK! Despite the typical old movie symptom of values dissonance, I found it enjoyable. None of the songs are classics, with the exception of an aria from Verdi’s Riggoletto, sung by a blind orphan girl, and the only example of pure Capracorn in the movie. Only one, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,”  is a real earworm, the kind that never ever will leave your head ever. 

Crobsy did his typical laid-back-wisecracker shtcik, and does it well, and Tone was amicable and charming as the doomed fiancee who tempts fate by inviting Crosby to stay at his immense estate. 

But the leading ladies blew them both out the water. Jane Wyman was amazing,the usually prim and somber actress lending herself swimmingly to comedy; she rages, wrestles, trips, make a fool of herself, and sings a little, too, all the while holding on to her dignity, smarts, and stubbornness. Alexis Smith, as the maid of honor and the smitten "kissing cousin" of Wilbur, is also a hoot, guided by Crosby into a Pygmalion-like transformation from dry, insecure blue-blood to a confident whistle-worthy head-locker. What could have come off as condescending portraits of women whose end goals are nabbing men, become amusing characters through the spunk, charisma, and energy of the two ladies.

Not as well known as it should be, I thought the movie was very good and well worth watching. It's nice to see a little fluff once in a while, and this one was a fine, frivolous, funny, and fun puff of fluff.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Time of Your Life (1948)

This is an odd little film. Not in a good "Holy shit, I've never seen anything like it and it's forced me to look at filmmaking/life in a brand new way, and getting me to ask questions about what I perceive as 'good' and 'bad,' turning my own preconceived notions on its head." More like a shrug of "meh," followed by the exasperated exclamation "Boy, this hasn't aged well at ALL!"

The Time of Your Life is an adaption of William Saroyan's Pulitzer prize winning, but little revived play of the same name. It takes place almost entirely in this San Francisco dive called Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant and Entertainment Place, which seem to attract the most strange, eccentric characters. This includes, but is not limited to, a B-girl with a heart of gold (Jeanne Cagney), a tap dancer who likes telling funny stories that nobody laughs at (Paul Draper), and Joe (James Cagney), a mysterious man who always has money and likes being nice to people. There's no real plot to speak of; just a lot of interactions and purplely monologues. It fact, it is almost radical is how little action takes place outside of the bar, not attempting to hide its theatrical roots, though bowing down to cinematic censorship (turning Kitty’s profession from prostitute to B-girl, for instance).

This is full of very memorable, and often very good, performances. Special shout outs have to go towards William Bendix as the bar owner, who is both exasperated and pleased by his clientele; and Jeanne Cagney (James’s sister) who projects a certain melancholy but fragile hope and will to survive in every scene she is in. Cagney himself is in an atypically low-key performance, and its only ok; there's little of the dynamism that makes him so appealing.

Now, this movie has major flaws, most that can be traced to the original material. The characters are a collection of quirks, tall tales and pinballs. The dialogue is overwrought and stylized to the point of grating rust. Morality is at its most basic divided into two types: those who are good and those who are vilely evil (the one Bad Guy wears black, for Christ's sake).


I'm glad I saw this bizarre film once, but it holds no candle to the best "movie based on a play where barflies monologue in a bar for hours," The Iceman Cometh (1970)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

The following is a cautionary tale.


At first glance, Lewis Milestone's Mutiny on the Bounty (with a few sequences directed by Reed before he was ingloriously replaced) has plenty of elements in its favor to make it a good sea yarn: an intriguing cast (Brando! Trevor Howard! Richard Harris!), lovely on-location shooting in Tahiti, an awe-inspiring replica of the good ship Bounty , and of course the story of the mutiny itself, full of intrigue and bitter rivalries, all in glorious Technicolor and Ultra Panavision 70.

As I proceed with this review, I’m dreadfully tempted to compare the movie to not only the other films about the Bounty Mutiny (particularly the 1935 and 1984 iterations), but the real events that transpired in the late 18th century.


Then I recall that good art can be made from bastardizing history, and criticizing the film on that aspect seems beside the point.[1] 


Even the legendarily hectic shooting (courtesy of switching directors mid-filming, raised costs, lousy weather, and Brando’s shenanigans), which has overshadowed the movie itself, I find barely worth mentioning. Again, enough classics have been made under other strenuous circumstance (ie that year’s Lawrence of Arabia), that a troubled production isn’t much of an excuse when it comes to ultimate quality.


And unfortunately, despite its admirable attempt to amp up the tale with moral ambiguity and Technicolor spectacle, the result is an impressively dull three-hour movie.

How did this happen?



In retrospect, the warning sighs are obvious from the beginning, when we are first serenaded with expositional narration during the boarding of the HMS Bounty as it is docked in Portsmith. The provider of this voiceover, here and throughout, is horticulturalist William Brown (Richard Haydn), who joins the Bounty to assist in its mission of gathering Breadfruit from Tahiti and transporting them to the West Indies.

You might think, considering how he’s the narrator instead of, say, Brando or Howard or Harris, that he will play a major role in the film. You would be deceived. With the exception of describing the properties and proper care for breadfruit, voicing some objections to Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) regarding the treatment of the crew, and providing mostly redundant exposition, Brown the Horticulturalist is a character of little importance.[2]

Despite the many criticisms leveled against Bligh over the course of the film, Trevor Howard is one of the few things in this movie that I whole-heartedly enjoyed.  None could play sneering bastards like Howard, and his bewigged and condescending performance here is a captivating one.
          
            The same cannot be said Brando’s Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, a boor if there ever was one. From the moment he gets on board, to his martyr-like death at the end, his silly British accent dissipates any hope that he will be taken seriously.

            Thank God for Bligh, and his condescending, misanthropic ways. I did find him to be a particularly captivating villain because, not in spite of, his pure rottenness. Already harboring a distain towards seamen in general, refereeing to them as “half-witted” and “wife-beating,” he takes a particularly venomous dislike towards the very foppish Christian, seeing him as a “career snob.” Little surprise, then, that the captain hashes ration cuttings along with disciplinary whippings, much to the chagrin of the crew, Christian included.

            This chagrin is vocalized. A lot. That’s not to say there are no epic set pieces. There are: a big storm scene that climaxes with the crushing of crewmember under a giant barrel, seemingly hundreds of canoes paddled out to great the Bounty as it arrives in Tahiti, a big fishing party, the very mutiny itself, and ending with the ship set aflame.

But these last for such long stretches, particularly the scenes on Tahiti, which feel more appropriate for a travelogue. Despite being quite a sight, they go on for so long, and accomplish so little narratively or visually, that what thrills there are quickly descend into yawns, despite the glorious color (the sunrises and sets are particular knockouts) and impressively wide cinemascope.


This format was not the kindest format for odd angles or close-ups; its strengths could be fully taken advantage of in framing and arrangements within the frame to create visual communication of scope. But what we have here is Cinemascope cinematography at its most dull: lots of standing or sitting, “clothes line” style, with plenty of talking, and set pieces that go on far too long, filmed in unmoving static takes.

It isn’t until we reach the actual mutiny itself, brought on by criminally limiting water rations to serve the plants that the film picks up a bit of the pace. The confrontation between Bligh and Christian becomes genuinely intense, as Bligh’s calm pride conflicts with Christian barely concealed rage. And it’s Bligh who prevents the mutiny itself from feeling victorious—as he’s being loaded onto the ship, he takes pleasure in the small victory of Christian’s now ruined honor and career.

Of course, that quickly descends into monotony again once Bligh is sent off along with other non-mutineers in a dingy, and that's nearly the last we see of Trevor Howard.

            From then on, we’re mostly stuck with Christen, who in this telling, is uncomfortable with his role as mutineer,. He becomes tormented with the thought of Blight catching them. That is, until he finds a sort of peace, far too late, by deciding that instead of running away from the British Navy, he and the crew should go directly to them, and put themselves on trial. Obviously, some of mutineers don’t like the idea of being court marshaled, so they set fire to the ship, and Brando dies trying to save a nautical instrument, a move that comes off more as stupid than heroic, though clearly it’s supposed to be seen as the latter.

Which is a pity, because the movie does flirt with adding ambiguity[3]. to an oft-told tale, while not quite going all the way.

While the crew’s longing for Tahiti encourages their del-factor leader (Richard Harris) to fan Christian’s discontent, Bligh’s inhuman treatment of the crew, which results in three fatalities, provides enough justification to make their actions less superficial and more sympathetic; making it a matter of rights, not vacation time. But the abuses held against them are shown on screen so briefly, and their own grumbles so repetitious, that any stakes are swept away by the audience dozing.

Bligh’s single-minded obsession with completing his transport mission and enforcing his will gives him a motivation, which makes him more understandable, though not sympathetic.

Only in a few scenes do we see Bligh stripped of his precious authority, and therefore, his threat: when he is forced into dancing with the Tahitians, and when he, with much embarrassment, orders Christian to court the Chief’s daughter: both of these actions are excused in his eyes, as being essential to being in the good graces of the Tahitians, so that the breadfruit can be gathered. Bligh does what he feels to be right for the sake of the mission and the crowd, no matter the brutality and humiliation. That he puts the mission first makes him, in Christian’s eyes near the end, a superior seaman.

Christian, on the other hand, also desires to do the right, or more accurately, the honorable, thing. He follows his captain’s orders, only pursues the chief’s daughter with Blight’s “blessing”, and starts to the mutiny when he intercedes in an inhuman torture. However, he isn’t comfortable with the mutiny in general, and his downfall comes when he mistakenly assumes that the mutineers share his sense of honor, and will willingly go to England to stand trail and be held accountable for their actions, simultaneously drawing attention to the brutality that drove them to this action.

And Christian, far from being a gung-ho leader of the mutiny, only takes that drastic step after Bligh promises him a court marshal after Christian strikes him in retaliation of the Captain’s kick. Soon Christian is uncomfortable with the responsibility of his criminal actions, even if they are justified by Bligh’s cruelty. Heck, even Christian’s death is blamed on Bligh’s influence.

Ultimately the morality remains black and white film; Blyth’s a villainous brute (even if he is acting within naval regulations) the mutiny is shown as being justified  (which, in real life, it wasn’t), and Brando, though not embracing of it, certainly acts the hero: protesting brutality, wanting to do the right thing, and getting the girl and martyr’s death while he’s at it.

And that conflict could be really compelling! A man who’s initially at odds with his superior officer, and then in addition to that, ends up out of favor with the men under him.

But even this simple premise undermined by the the minimal investment drawn from Brando’s  dull as dirt performance; perhaps the silly accent was intentional, to further draw attention to the alienation and inherent snobbery his has, but dear lord, surely that could have been conveyed with a little more charisma? At least enough for the Chief daughter’s infatuation with him to be comprehensible?



Taken together, the result is a boring slog: boring in nearly every way: acting, visuals, dialogue, music (the later which is a perfect analogy for the rest of the film: rousing for the first 20 seconds, a slog the rest of the way), etc. Anything that could have possibly made this tale compelling was thinned out.

Not helping was my familiarity with not only the previously mentioned ’35 version, but the 80s version as well. The most grounded in history of all the movie interpretations, it takes what did make the 60s version bearable (Bligh, the color cinematography the attempt at psychological complexity) and puts it in a much more compelling package.

Instead, what we have here is an ok looking film that’s not interesting as a character piece, nor as an epic. Instead, it just sort of sits there, like a toy boat in a stagnant pond. Or a fancy model ship in a studio tank, whatever the budget is.

My advise—if you want a compelling exciting yarn, watch Bounty ’35; a complex clash of personalities and temperaments, the ’84 version; if neither sounds like your cup of tea, this one I guess. Just make sure you get some coffee first.





[1] Those interested in the facts, however, can do no wrong in checking out Caroline Alexander’s excellent account of the true events leading up and following the infamous mutiny.
[2] His narration, despite having a limited role in the proceedings, is more comprehensible after finding out that he was featured in a framing device that took place years later, regaling the events of the film. Thankfully, this was discarded, though you can find it on the DVD.
[3] It certainly attempts slightly more complexity than the superior ’35 version, which I’m a big fan of: historically inaccurate, yet genuinely rousing, with compelling performances and super cinematography that make it a studio-era dynamo.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Why Change Your Wife (1920) / Mad Dog Morgan (1977)

(note: this is a ye olde review from 1 year ago that I forgot to post)

Mood whiplash double feature. First, a fluffy silent comedy about marital difficulties, followed by a piece of ozploitation.

Why Change Your Wife

Gloria Swanson (the wife), Thomas Meighan (the husband) and Bebe Daniels (the gold-digger who steals said husband) were utterly charming. So was the movie for that matter, what with all those silly fashions of 1920: patterned stocking and knee-length swimsuits and wrap around strapless negligees with fur trimmings.

It's similar in plot to director Cecil B. DeMille's previous Don't Change Your Husband (1919), another comedy of remarriage, and has the same basic outline, but gender flipped: married protagonist is unhappy with spouse, leaves spouse for another, seemingly more "romantic" alternative, turns out spouse #2 sucks, so protagonist returns to spouse #1, who in the meantime has loosened and glammed up, and they remarry happily.

In this one, the wife transforms from prim prude to saucy minx. The movie itself is a bit condescending towards women, not surprising considering the time period. Meighan is consistently presented as being a square guy practically pushed into the arms of Daniels by uptight Swanson's killjoying ways. But because this is a comedy, one overheard piece of gossip is enough for the newly divorced Swanson to completely overthrow her puritan ways and put on the plums.

But I couldn't dislike this movie. The plot itself is so simplified, the mood so lighthearted, and the sets and costumes so lovely, that I found it immensely enjoyable. DeMille movies, especially his silents, can have wonderful bits of understated humor - not much of the banana slipping variety (though we do get a banana peel here played for comedy and tragedy), but more humor created out of the facial expressions as they eye roll,  smell perfume,  and get put in inconvenient or awkward. A comedy of the senses, where everything works out and sorts out, with even the gold digger getting a new man.

Mad Dog Morgan

A lot of fake beards in this movie. Enough to make ZZ Top jealous.

Can't say that I'm in the proper position to make any sort of judgement, as the copy I saw was an obviously censored and scratched up pan-and-scan. Dennis Hooper was quite a.....presence, what with his 3 fake beards and Irish brogue. The film is disjointed, consisting of barely tied together ultra short vignettes. Morgan is humanized compared to the mean and sadistic trackers, though I guess it's to the filmmaker's credit that they don't glam him up too much, showing him to be a crook way over his head but too bullish to back down. (I wonder if anyone has done a comparison between American, English, and Australian outlaws of the 18th-19th century, and how they are portrayed, culturally and historically, in their respective countries.)

I'm undecided wether Mad Dog Morgan's frequent use of jump cuts made it avant-garde, or if was just sloppily put together.  The result felt simultaneously sleazy and pretentious, but either way I ended up rather bored.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

Prison movies lend themselves really well to black and white cinematography. It must be all the concrete walls, metal bars, drab uniforms and bleak situations.

This one's filmed in the very real Flosom State Prison, and directed by one of my favs, Don Siegal. How can you lose with the same guy who did Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and his other on-location prison film, Escape from Alcatraz (1979)?

No big stars here; the only recognizable name to me was character actor and figure of authority extraordinaire Whit Bissell (seems like he was in every other TV show or movie from the 50s or 60s).

The rest of the actors were compelling, and not a single matinee idol among 'em, which added to the realism. We don't really have a protagonist, more like major players: the warden and three inmates, who run the gamut from good, bad, and sorta in between.

The leader of the riot (Neville Brand) is the latter. He's curio-leading character for the studio-era,  because despite organizing the uprising to draw attention to the disciple conditions in prison, it's explicitly stated that he's homicidal and needs psychiatric treatment. As head honcho he does some pretty rotten things to get the governor to give in to the prisoners demands for improved living conditions. The worst is saved for the climax, when he places ties captured guards and a protesting prisoner right in front of a wall due to be detonated by the unknowing and desperate state police.

The unfortunate prisoner who just narrowly misses getting killed (Robert Osterloh) is the "good" con. You always have to include at least one of them in a prison film: the straight guy who once went wrong, but is otherwise upstanding. He's the voice of reason, and is ultimately rewarded for his morals (and not being a 3 time loser) by getting paroled. It helps that he isn't an instigator of the riot, but later assists his fellow inmates not through violence, but through words, drafting their demands in acceptable language.

On the opposite end of the morality spectrum is the Big Bad prisoner (Leo Gordon), a rotter who's most excited about killing the guards held hostage. He's there to make the other two guys look good in comparison.

And what does it say about ye olde Hollywood cinema that this, a prison movie, contains the most integrated cast I've yet seen from a 1950s movie? And does a good job not specifically antagonizing either the guards, the warden or the inmates?

However, it is one of those 1950s message movies. Speechy and preachy, but at least it has the decency of being exciting, intercutting assorted monologues about prison reform with more rioting or other acts of violence. Doesn't hurt that prison reform is still a pressing issue, and the prisoners demands (overcrowding, job training, abuse, etc.) are still relevant.

No women were seen until the last five minutes, and those were the guards wives; before that all we heard were their voices. Their primary purpose is to be worried about their husbands.

The ending is refreshing, neither nihilist (Brute Force), or overly happy in an "everything is gonna be alright" sort of way.The riot doesn't lead to direct or major changes in the system, but it does draw attention to the issue through media. If there's any hissable villain, it's those sons-of-bitches that won't cough up the money for prison reform.

Surprisingly Mature might be my take on the material, what with its onscreen toilets, awareness of the power of journalistic representation, and it's insistence on being an expose. Also surprising is the movie's reference (very very implied) to prison rape (though considering how only one inmate is singled out as a perpetrator, and this being the 50s, it could just be referring to the threat of the "predatory gay" to prim, proper, and paranoid 50s morals).

Other good stuff:
Nice black and white cinematography, with exciting framing.

Less a fan of:
Music is a bit overblown, but that's to be expected from a low-buget IMPORTANT prison film.

Roberta (1935)


Absence makes the heart grow stronger. A lesson well-learned while watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' third film together, as the dynamic duo play second fiddle to Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott's soggy romance.

No one goes to a Astaire/Rogers movie for the plot, so in brief: Americans Astaire and Scott are in Paris; Scott fall for Russian princess Dunne (barely attempting an accent), while Astaire chills with old flame turned fake Countess turned successful singer Rogers. Shenanigans ensue around the titular Roberta fashion house, interspersed with songs by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach.

Far too much screen time is given to Dunne and Scott, whose old hat movie courtship of meet cute, breaking up over misunderstanding, and final reconciliation sealed with a clinch, is played mostly straight, and bogs down the film. To help slow the pace further, Dunne somberly and shrilly sings four songs, including the classics "Yesterdays," "Smoke Get in Your Eyes" and "Lovely to Look at."


Compared to Dunne's glass-shattering operetta, Astaire's melo crooning and Rogers' wisecracking are welcome respites. Together, they are a joy; the "antagonism turning into love" arc that populates so many of their movies is nowhere to be seen, and they begin and end as pals, kidding around, even when they're dancing.

And what dancing! My God, all their numbers here are classics. Astaire gets two lighthearted solos, "Let's Begin" and "I Won't Dance," and 3 duets with Rogers: The fun "I'll be Hard to Handle,"

the divine "Lovely to Look at" that follows Dunne's trilling,

and the knock-out, boisterous finale that closes the movie.


It's a tribute to the silver-screen sparkle Astaire and Rogers could create together that the movie is watchable. Without them, it would have been a forgotten triffle. With them, it's a minor classic with moments of magic.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Hamlet (1996)

I appreciate Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996). I like it existing, standing out as the sole unabridged cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare tragedy about The Dane Who Couldn't Make Up His Mind. How I like it as a movie is another matter.

In my mind's eye, the movie stands as a testament as to why Hamlet benefits from being edited. Similar to how Gus Van Saint's Psycho (1998) is useful demonstrating that a great script and wonderful cinematography doesn't necessarily make a great movie. I'm not saying that Branagh's Hamlet is an atrocity like Van Saint's experiment, far from it; it's a fine film, chock full of great performances and lovely production design.

But it does drag. Not surprising, since it is a 4 hour movie. But a really good Shakespeare adaptation should remind me why I love the Bard, not make me emphasize with those who consider him dull and impenetrable.

I could lay the blame on a few factors. Of course, there's the decision to capture every single bloomin' line and minor character in Shakespeare's longest play. Which did result in a lot of nice poetry, but it did also mean a lot of focus on Fortinbras and Norwegian diplomacy, elements which I never found to be among the more interesting aspects of the play. And tons of reiteration and retellings of things already seen and spoken of.

One of the benefits of shorter (and by shorter, I mean the 2 1/2 to 3 hour iterations) productions is that redundancies can be removed, and somewhere along the viewing, I found a new appreciation for all those directors who manager to trim enough to keep Hamlet compelling and comprehensible.

Maybe I just had a short attention span the evening I watched Branagh's Hamlet in one sitting. But with the odd explosion of ham that is to be expected with any Shakespeare adaptation, this was an especially soothing version. There were dynamic moments, including a finale that involved a falling chandelier. And it did have lots of long tracking takes, though these were less of the thrilling Hitchcock or Welles variety and more reminiscent of the somber, slow-moving moves of Tarkovsky. So we get plenty of walking and talking, and very little alternating camera angles to spice things up.


Again, I like this movie; there are far worse Hamlets than this one. And I’m glad that there is one complete Hamlet movie out there. But due to its prioritizing textual fidelity over cinematic storytelling, it misses being an enthralling movie.