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The Cobalt Screening Room Balcony

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Post by ghemrats on 6/13/2020, 6:35 pm

Post #412: Hello, and welcome to Give Up This Day, an ongoing series of Eternal Questions brought to you at this time by PBS (Phillips BS) by sidestepping a generous grant from The Chubb Group to keep it off the air, with no association whatsoever with the National Endowment For The Arts. Today we pull at one of the hanging strands of Life's Rich Tapestry to unravel the central question which has been densely woven into our fabric since the time of Genesis: Did Adam have a belly button? Adding absolutely nothing to aid us in this investigation is today's feature, *The Private Lives Of Adam And Eve* (1960), directed by Albert Zugsmith (guilty of producing such titles as *Girl's Town* (1959) and *Sex Kittens Go To College* (1960), both of which were commented on here) and actor Mickey Rooney.

Of course, the existence of Adam's belly button provokes more important issues than mere navel gazing. In Renaissance art, for instance, the inclusion of that flick of a brush on masterpieces implied an empirical conundrum: If, say, Da Vinci included the umbilical appendage in Adam's phsyique, he was suggesting Man was not created by God but of a mortal, which would philosophically put Man at the center of the universe rather than a deity. This would directly contravene Biblical teaching, resulting in heresy. In that vein, then, Zugsmith's film takes some liberties with the Adam and Eve narrative, earning his movie the Catholic Legion of Decency condemnation for being blasphemous and sacrilegious resorting to "indecencies and pornography" that are "blatant violations of Judeo-Christian standards of modesty and decency." And Zugsmith doesn't even come close to Adam's navel cinematically and physically.

Framed with a bus trip to Reno, Nevada--aha, the desert, where so much Biblical action takes place--the film follows eight travelers who are waylaid by a flood (Yo, another Biblical allusion). On the bus are traveling salesman Hal Sanders (Mel Torme), jail bait runaway Vangie Harper (sixteen-year-old Tuesday Weld), Nick Lewis (Mickey Rooney) ready to divorce his wife Lil (Fay Spain) so he can take up with waitress Evie Simms (Mamie Van Doren) who wants to divorce her husband Ad (Martin Milner), and fleshing out the group is rock and roller Pinky Parker (Paul Anka). Along with kindly old bus driver Doc Bayles (Cecil Kellaway) they take refuge in an abandoned church. As the storm rages, all the particulars all asleep and the cheap black-and-white film switches to Spectracolor (dreadfully time- and cheap-stock red-tinted hues) in which nearly every bus rider becomes a participant in a "fable" starring Adam (Milner) and Eve (Van Doren). There to subvert them are The Devil (Rooney dressed in red longjohns and horns) and Lillith (Spain).

Adam walks around a bargain basement Eden, conjuring animal names alphabetically (B-rolls) in leafy swimming trunks. He meets the temptress Lillith (Spain) who tries to get him drunk on grapes, introduces him to a makeshift bed and tempts him until Eve catches them and throws coconuts at them. Personally I don't recall that chapter in Genesis, nor do I find references to Adam arranging stone and boulderized "furniture" in their cave, but you'll find those lost chapters here. All the time The Devil prances around as if he's been bitten by a swarm of horrific overacting bugs while he's surrounded himself with busty familiars named for the days of the week and *Playboy* Playmates. By this time you might infer that *The Private Life of Adam and Eve* is not a rock solid documentary. (The scholarly Zugsmith himself said, "I pick my titles to get 'em into theatres. Thousands of exhibitors say amen to that.")

Fast forward: Eve bites the apple, Adam follows suit, the Devil appears in a second-grade-requistioned papier-mache snake (or is it an alligator, who can tell?) costume, and tries to get Eve to cut her bosom length tresses, and the fable reverts to black and white, ending with Eve falling in the mud in a torrential rainstorm pleading with God to talk to her. The dream ends, the storm is over, and recognizing that everyone shared the same dream, all the bus riders exit the church two by two--Valerie and Pinky, Lil and Hal, Nick and Doc singly, and Ad and Evie reunited (and it feels so good) as they rapturously look for the nearest Baskin-Robbins so Evie can have ice cream and strawberries--and a dill pickle because. . . well, you can't say it because it's 1960, but she's going to be raising a little cain.

Parodies of the Happy Couple have been fodder for show business since Moses was in the bullrushes, but is this worthy of the Catholic Legion of Decency's hellfire? Uh, no, not really, because there is no salaciousness in it, no nudity, no crudity, especially by today's standards. So should you invest 86 minutes of your God-given time watching it? Good God, NO! Gaze at your own navel for a better time. Martin Milner, who the same year premiered on CBS's classic *Route 66* show and later filled in as a cop in *Adam-12*--ooh, coincidence? I think not, because he should have policed his career better than to play Adam here--is basically a stick, and not an interesting one in the mud. Mamie Van Doren exhibits no discernible talent other than being able to stand upright.

Tuesday Weld and Mel Torme fill space but have absolutely nothing to do in 90% of the film, despite the leering introduction of the gorgeous Weld, "They used to call her 'Bobby Sox', but now they call her 'Baby Sex.'" But it's that mentality you have to endure while watching Mickey Rooney completely out of control as Nick and The Devil, who is not lascivious but just freaking annoying. But the height of lowness comes right out the Gate when Paul Anka drives his beatnik jalopy, which the Clampetts would disown as degrading to them, down the rear projection highway, steering with his feet so he can strum his guitar, and sings the theme song of his own (de)composition. Kyrie eleison down the road that we must travel.

So, to quote the famous academician Pee-Wee Herman, "What's the significance? I. DON'T. KNOW!" Is it good? No. Does it make audiences laugh? No. Is it irredeemably stupid? A resounding yes. The *LA Times* at the time of release said, the script "too bright ... an unpleasant combination of scraps of professional piety and masses of suggestive buffoonery." Is it offensive? Only to anyone with taste, but it's more aesthetic than ecumenical in its disdain; no one of faith will have anything shaken in this lame concatenation of clumsy comic suckitude (that's the official word for it).

And since it doesn't address our central issue about Adam's umbilical accoutrement, we can safely advise anyone who breaks the social distance rule of approaching this film any closer than six feet, to put some vinyl on the turntable and review Chapter One from The Book Of Moby paying particular attention to the verses of *Run On*:
Michael spoke and he sound so sweet
I thought I heard the shuffle of angels' feet
He put one hand upon my head
Great God Almighty let me tell you what He said
Go tell that lonesome liar
Go tell that midnight rider
Tell the gamblin' ramblin' backslider
Tell them God Almighty gonna cut 'em down

Until that happens, be sure to tune in next time as we address another of Life's Big Questions in future installments, promising much finer fare than we have found today.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 6/13/2020, 7:36 pm

My favorite navel action movie is From Here to Eternity. Yes, this piece sent barreling down a pun freeway. Sadly, the aforementioned was the best of the lot. pirat
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Post by ghemrats on 6/14/2020, 5:46 pm

Post #413: On occasion, although I hate to admit it, I lose my temper. Most of the time I avoid spontaneous combustion, raining tatters of my shattered personality in myriad of multi-colored pieces on anyone near me, let alone close to me. Even during this self-imposed Cornovirus exile when tensions can run into the Ozone, I work hard at cultivating an even-keeled approach to life; only once in the past several months have I entertained the possibility of microwaving the dog, even though he had it coming because in his eyes I was slow by fifteen minutes to get him his dinner.

So yesterday after an hour of K-Rogering, the continental way of indicating a trip to the grocery store, when our refrigerator spat out every wrapped piece of food in protest of being engorged—cottage cheese getting in the whey of peaceful coexistence alongside zesty dill pickles—I vented and invented new languages to express peevishness approaching its Fail Safe position. I sputtered and burbled, not finding a phrase profanely colorful enough to show my frustration. I came up with this, which I freely loose to you to employ at your leisure when life gnaws on your anterior region: “Fur-lined baby benchpress!”

Try it. Enunciate masterfully. Put some stank on it. Its rhythm is what’s important, not the words themselves. Cadence is everything. It replaces in my catalog of creative cursing "Bushel basket full of dirty laundry," even though that one is terrific in the car if you really pounce on each syllable because it LOOKS filthy to people reading lips.

I bring all this up because ours is a time of mounting anxiety for many good folks unaccustomed to spending time with their families. But imagine if you were pushed to greater limits, testing your mettle, say, with blackmail, counterfeiting, smuggling and possibly retributive murder--how would you handle that if simply spilling a hundred-dollar rainbow salad of groceries on the floor set you off? I'd hope I'd be able to navigate those issues with the aplomb of Zachary Scott in today's feature, *Wings Of Danger, aka Dead On Course* (1952). Never once in his 73 minutes on screen does he resort to such epithets as "Monkey pluckin' fruitbasket" or anything resembling Yosemite Sam's apoplexy, nothing even so daring as "Drat!" He just blacks out. Certainly a more civilized method of dealing with exasperation.

Scott plays American pilot and air traffic controller Richard "Van" Van Ness whose best friend (and brother to his love interest Avril (Naomi Chance)) hot shot flyboy playboy Nick Talbot (Robert Beatty) blackmails him into letting Nick fly into the mouth of a storm to Guernsey. Fearing he'll be grounded if his boss Boyd Spencer (Arthur Lane) discovers his blackouts, Van reluctantly allows Nick to take off, only to regret that decision when Nick never reaches his destination, remnants of his plane fished out of the waters surrounding the Channel Islands. As it comes to pass, Van discovers his buddy was involved in illegal smuggling, transporting counterfeit money made in the UK and disguised solid gold tool sets, and now Avril is being blackmailed to keep Nick's image squeaky clean in their father's eyes. It's enough to make Van scream "Nutty buddy mother plungers," but he pushes on with a clenched jaw.

Director Terence Fischer (a Hammer help with a heapin' helpin' of horror films in his future) moves things along with a couple of tepid surprises, and a couple of fetching turns from Kay Kendall (Mrs. Rex Harrison) as Spencer's shady lady Alexia LaRoche and Diane Cilento's (wife of Andrea Volpe, then Sean Connery, then Anthony Shaffer) film debut as Jeannette, an innocent in it all. The plot is properly convoluted, but I enjoyed Scott and Beatty who play it all so very very straight and serious, along with a slimy portrayal of the criminal element Snell from Harold Lang. With his trim '40s reject mustache Scott reminded me of a stiff William Powell with half his emotive power, the picture of internalized conflict. Colin Tapley as Inspector Maxwell is another small plus, though it's a good general rule of thumb not to poke too hard at motivations and plot twists in this film but just glide through the storm with grim resolve.

A smattering of action set pieces helps *Wings Of Danger* (another stupid American title, when the British original *Death On Course* is much more appropriate and indicative of its story) from sinking into the Channel, including the discovery of the printing press and a final confrontation. But the dialogue strains a bit too hard to sound menacing and hard-boiled. Van reflects on Nick's fate: "Nick had taken a sock at the gale and it had socked him back and broken his neck. It was as simple as that. And yet there was a lot of loose ends and ideas that jabbed at my brain and fizzled out to the edge of nowhere..." Yup. And Alexia gets in her fair share of digs too: "My future's no dream from a bottle! I've had too much of attic rooms and runs in my stocking and ten cent bar loungers trying to paw me to death not to know what I want out of life and to recognize it when I've got it. All you have to do is hitch your wagon, and I'm tossing you the hook!" And put the two together and you've got a little aged Sterno fire:
Alexia LaRoche: [getting no response to her advances] You really keep yourself on ice, don't you, Van?
Richard Van Ness: Do I?
Alexia LaRoche: Don't you ever melt?
Richard Van Ness: Yes... sometimes... in the dark.

Hot'cha. Okay, it's a little slick, but not a big box office killing. Still, for all its civilized English mayhem, there is something interesting in it that contrasts with the present glut of limitless profanity in even the smallest Netflix offering. *Wings Of Danger* makes all these heinous crimes stylish in its reserve, and that's kind of pleasant, as the kids can watch it and not add considerably to their vocabulary but learn calm repression leading to periodic loss of consciousness. On second thought, maybe it *is* healthier to shout an occasional "Muddy flaking bacon backer" than succumbing to a dead faint and taking a header into the end table.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/15/2020, 5:10 pm

Post #414 (A Palindrome production): Searching for empathy and connection with one of my classes, I once attempted to root out a meaningful dialogue with my students on the topic of pensive self reflection. Did any of them ever feel like that John Denver song, "Sometimes I Feel Like A Sad Song"? You're not depressed, I explained, but you just want to put it all on hold and be alone with yourself? What I received was a crushing silence and more than a couple of people staring at me like dogs tilting their heads in confusion because I mimicked a bark at them. Not registering. At all. So I told a not-very-dirty joke and hastily dropped the sincerity act as though I had momentarily been possessed by the spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre on quaaludes. I had lost them at John Denver.

I think that's why viewings of today's feature, *Away We Go* (2009) drew such divergent reactions. Directed by Sam Mendes (*American Beauty* 1999, back-to-back James Bond features *Skyfall* 2012 and *Spectre* 2015, and most recently *1917* 2019), this quiet road picture with John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph really establishes the Independent Picture feel in every frame, which rankles some people who think movies should be all flying shrapnal, airborne jet propelled cars and leading actors with muscles in their ears and molotov cocktails gritted in their teeth being cooed over by busty femme fatales. And that kind of film is fine if your diet consists of nothing but nachos and popcorn, but sometimes I feel like a sad song. . . .

Except large sections of *Away We Go* are humanely hilarious. With a screenplay by one of my favorite writers Dave Eggers (*A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius*) and his wife novelist Vendela Vida, the film finds Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski), a thirty-something couple living in Denver, Colorado, confronting life changes as they expect their first child: How now are they to live to ensure they create a well adjusted home? And where? So away they go, trekking across the United States, visiting friends and relatives to discover what makes a happy family. Nature? Nurture? Nut ball philosophy? They find it all as they set out six months into Verona's pregnancy.

Their first visit is close to them, checking in with Burt's parents Gloria and Jerry (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels), a free spirited but loving and supportive couple who surprise the kids with plans to move to Antwerp, Belgium, for two years, leaving a month before the baby is due. So away Burt and Verona go to Phoenix, Arizona, to catch up with Verona's old boss, Lily (Allison Janney), her husband, Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), and their two children. But Lily is a self-professed "crazy" who has no filter and demeans her children directly to their faces while Lowell wallows in a nihilistic view of society. So away they go to Tucson, spending time Verona's sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo), who is in limbo with her boring boyfriend.

By the time they reach Madison, Wisconsin, and Burt's childhood friend and faux cousin, "LN," a radical New Age bastardization of "Ellen," (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton), Burt and Verona lose all faith in American values, as LN still breast feeds her four-year-old children and Roderick condescendingly expounds on child-rearing, demonstratively refusing the gift of a stroller as it "pushes the children away from you." So away we go to Montreal, where Tom (Chris Messina) and his wife, Munch Garnett (Melanie Lynskey) appear to be the most balanced and ideal married couple they've met . . . until painful confessions surface during Amateur Night at a local bar. And when Burt's brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) issues up an emergency call from Miami, away we go again, discovering Courtney's wife has left him and their young daughter in a lurch.

Heartfelt and sweet, *Away We Go* moves between the private language established between Burt and Verona to the spiky relational shifts with each new visit. By turns funny in soft moments and hilarious in bursts of slapstick, the film tracks comedy and personal tragedy with skillful rhythms, weaving dramatic fermatas at pivotal times to deepen the power and give the audience time to appreciate the nuances in the actors. Mendes is a grand conductor, employing soft focus and American landscapes to convey the small and fragile nature of relationships. Maya Rudolph's subtle eye movements and twists of a near-smile underscore the combination of fear, joy and uncertainty of Verona's inner world. While John Krasinski, in his moppish hair and horned rimmed glasses, plays Burt large, he offers tender steadfastness in a compassionate chemistry that made me believe these two belonged together.

Amid the loud and goofy moments when Burt tries to elevate Verona's slow heartbeat by surprising her or picking a fight, lies a deep commitment to Verona's health and well being. And other times, as the two spoon late at night while the bustling city traffic flows past their hotel window in an endless stream of wanderers, life makes promises that theirs is a union that will be sustained in the face of brokenness all around them, in marriage or simple coexistence. So, no--this is not an adrenaline jolt of a film, leaving the audience deaf from tumultuous explosions and bone-crushing belts to the jaw; it's a composition of silences and intimate stolen glances that do not destroy but embrace, sometimes awkwardly in their closeness to reality and other times gratefully through distance--more than once I felt wonderful that my wife and I were nothing like some of those friends.

The pairing of Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan is inspired. Janney is so expansive in her brashness, her bold expressiveness, and Gaffigan is so low key in his passive resignation to her outbursts that we end up pitying their poor children, just as we recoil over the futures of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton's progeny smothered by their Ham-Buddha-Helper holistic-holy-sh*t culture. But they bring new irony to Burt and Verona's early late night worry that they are "f***ups" because they haven't yet established a homestead for their baby.

But I think it's telling that the film's title--and the title cards dotting the narrative--alludes to constant movement. Our duo drive cars, try to board planes, take trains, and everywhere the landscapes coast by, making the final scene beautiful and heart tugging. "Away" becomes not just a Rand McNally direction but a motif referencing all the supporting characters--even though they have established what Burt and Verona are searching for, a permanent home, they move "away": Burt's parents are moving away from their grandchild for two years, Lily and Lowell push one another and their children "away," LN and Roderick wedge their friends, the outside world and any acquaintances (and possibly their own children) "away" through their persistent condescension and imposition of their will, Tom and Munch (ideal though they may appear) are nudged "away" by their sadness, and Courtney and Grace have been moved away either through abandonment or indifference.

Adding to the pathos is an acoustic soundtrack by Alexi Murdoch. His compositions softly underscore the action and comment on it in a style very reminiscent of Nick Drake, his voice a similar unassuming folksy whisper accompanying our duo's inner lives. And for some that may be weirdly intrusive, as I've read some criticism that the soundtrack (aside the fantastic "What Is Life?" by George Harrison) becomes annoying. Well, I suppose if you're not in the mood for a contemplative, achingly human 98 minutes where no one blows up or is aggressively beaten, it would be slow, not at all your cup of nitroglycerin.

But if your mood allows you to either visit or revisit all the complex emotional baggage of impending mother- and fatherhood and all its resplendent joy, anxiety, fear and pride, or if you're nearing your tumultuous thirties with questions of your place in the world, then please give *Away We Go* your time. For me, I was reminded of two miraculous moments in my life, seven years apart. I remember specifically that rush of emotions as I held my first and second sons, tiny bundles taking their first breaths, and Joyce reminds me that I said exactly the same thing both times as I rocked their fragile forms: "This is what I was meant to do."

And it's telling, I think, that amidst all the title cards announcing "Away to Phoenix," "Away to Tuscon," and so on, the final title card is simply "Home." There's no warmer promise than that.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/17/2020, 2:14 pm

Post #416: Today's feature, *Back To The Beach* (1987), reunites Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello twenty years after their American International Pictures series, this time with Lori Laughlin as their daughter, and a sand pail full of vintage cameos from Barbara Billingsly, Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers (not as The Beaver), Don Adams, Bob Denver and Alan Hale Jr. (from *Gilligan's Island*), Edd "Kookie" Burns (*77 Sunset Strip*), Dick Dale and two of the DelTones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Fishbone, Connie Stevens (*Hawaiian Eye*), Don Adams (*Get Smart*), Pee-Wee Herman and (God help us) OJ Simpson. What could possibly go wrong. . . outside of everything. Every stinkin' frame of its 92 minutes.

So this will be my shortest commentary of record, yet completely inclusive since this was Annette's last film (she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis during the filming). My commentary:

No.

Just no.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/18/2020, 5:04 pm

Post #417: Between yesterday's fiasco and today's, the good news is Things can only improve. A steady diet of films like these is the fastest way to induce cinematic nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach and diarrhea for which no Pepto Bismol exists at the concession stand. On the plus side they are good to keep around in case you accidentally ingest a broad-spectrum glyphosate-based herbicide mistaking it for Hidden Valley, as these movies induce vomiting with relative ease. So today's life-saver is *Beat Girl, aka Wild For Kicks* (1960), a British import to make up for all the high quality material like *Downton Abbey* and *I, Claudius*, assuring us Americans that England can be just as sleazy as we can be.

Now despite all its lurid and mind-numbingly stupid appeal, *Beat Girl* holds a couple intriguing distinctions that separate it from fodder for the La Brea Tar Pits: John Barry composed the score in his first official film commission; in my mind, Barry was one of the finest film composers around, memorializing eleven of the James Bond scores and adding a note of pristine prestige to scores of scores. In 1999 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) at Buckingham Palace for services to music, and won five Academy Awards and numerous Grammys. His John Barry Seven plays in *Bad Girl* after his stint as arranger for the Jack Parnell and Ted Heath's Orchestra. *Bad Girl* also sets the record for the first UK release of a soundtrack.

Secondly, *Bad Girl* received an X-rating (Passed for Public Exhibition When No Children under 16 are present) from the British Board of Film Censors in March 1959 whose reviewer termed it "machine-made dirt" and "the worst script I have read for some years." Got you hooked yet? [I should point out that it earned that rating due to the time it was released; today it *might* garner a PG-rating for fuzzy, tame glimpses of a bared breast, juvenile delinquency and "adult" situations, along the lines of a bad soap opera.]

Finally, it's distinguished as singer Adam Faith's film premiere, looking bored but singing a couple odd tunes in the cavernous underground coffee clubs in Soho. On his arm is our "heroine" Jennifer (Gillian Hills), a pouty disaffected Lolita who rebels against her father's new marriage to beautiful twenty-four-year-old French woman Nichole (Noelle Adam), who bends over backward to befriend the teen. And "bending over backward" might be an appropriate choice of words, for Jennifer learns, quite by probing accident, that her stepmother used to be a "dancer" in Paris, a claim Nichole would prefer to forget and bury in the past.

So what we have here is a failure to communicate, unless it's by veiled innuendo and sledgehammer accusation as the frisky little Jennifer, who appears to be in perpetual heat, sneaks out at night, chases thrills like playing chicken, drag racing at exorbitant speeds, and tempting fate by joining her friends in laying their heads against railroad tracks daring the oncoming train to flatten their heads like pennies. Oh yes, how could I forget--she also frequents the local strip club--the imaginatively titled Les Girls--to gather dirt on her stepmother from Greta (Delphi Lawrence), the star attraction lorded over by club owner and seedy promoter Kenny King (Christopher Lee).

If all that is not enough for you cynics who believe the younger generation will always be populated by base miscreants out of touch with common human decency, let's point out the most disturbing detail in this sordid scenario: Gillian Hills was--wait for it--fourteen when she made this debacle. While her friends--Dave (Adam Faith), a working-class youth who plays guitar and writes songs; Tony (Peter McEnery), a general's son with a drinking problem whose mother was killed in the Blitz; and Dodo (Shirley Anne Field), Tony's well-bred girlfriend--all eschew violence, delinquency and alcohol (save for Tony; "Drinks' for squares, Man," Dave tells him), they are not above rebelling against the norm "just 'cuz," exhibiting surly snarls for the squares. Jennifer herself is a snotty little oversexualized brat who only semi-consciously considers defaming her father for his preoccupation with building a city of the future by stripping professionally after throwing a wild, man, party in his home.

Daddy Paul Linden (David Farrar) reacts stolidly, yelling at Jennifer's comrades, "Get out, you driveling, jiving, beatnik scum" while Jennifer further extends her lower lip, creases her brow into a rolodex and swings her unmatted lioness mane in disdain wishes Daddy-O would pay some attention to HER once in a while. Meanwhile, Nichole tries to reach the recalcitrant teen after endless scenes of unrequited kindness by whacking her open handed across the sultry little face (a scene which took multiple takes because Gillian Hills kept anticipating the slap until finally Noelle Adam went for it by surprise and scooooooooorrrrrred!).

I realize I've made it sound so much more lurid than it actually appears onscreen, and the final confrontation between club owner Christopher Lee and Gillian Hill is creepy until something happens and we see the daring little darling break her facade. *Beat Girl* is all exploitative bluster, certainly up for moderate shocks at the time, but remains today a reminder of a time when values were being fired up in a crucible. Can a former "bad girl," doing what she had to do to survive, be redeemed and forgiven, or will her twisted past forever brand her? What failures do success and a laser focus on business create themselves in rich but neglected children? Are we being good ancestors? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? The world may never know. . . .

Maybe *Beat Girl* is a social commentary on post-war England (Pink Floyd is yelling in my ear, "Should we shout, should we scream, whatever happened to the post-war dream?") with a little salacious stripping occurring at the corners. There is a nice contrast between the peaceful rockabilly crowd of Dave and friends juxtaposed against the "Teddy Boy" culture, fueled by jazz and skiffle music and coined by the media of the time as "feral youth" and "teen menace." Rebellion then is shown in two differing outlets--when confronted by a gang of Teddy Boys who trash Tony's car, Dave backs off, palms out, saying, "Fighting's for squares, man!"

In any event, I suppose *Beat Girl* isn't as bad as it could be, but it's a long way from Mary Poppins' England. . . unless she hides a past of pole dancing as well. I shudder to think.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/19/2020, 5:32 pm

Post #418: My movie demands are small: Just give me a good plot, engaging actors, interesting rhythm, a fair jazzy score, and a director who was born in Detroit on my birthday thirty-five years before I popped out. If it happens to be released in the year of my birth, well, that's just a little extra plus. Is that too much to ask? Even with those criteria fulfilled, there's no guarantee we'll have a hit on our hands, but I'll be more inclined to sit down with it. And here we are, checking all the boxes with today's feature, *Loan Shark* (1952) starring George Raft at his quintessential best, at age 57.

Now don't get me wrong: *Loan Shark* would never yank people out of their Coronavirus exile to jam the Googleplex matinees any time soon, but for my money it's not nearly as abysmal as the last couple films I've forced myself to finish. It's just a sturdy, formidable '40s gangster flick that was made twelve years too late to be a hit with the ten-cent popcorn crowd. As an American-made Lippert production, who'd'a thunk the weed of crime bearing bitter fruit would grow wild in a Goodyear rubber tire plant? But there it is--as members of the factory crew sit around moaning about how the local criminal element is bleeding them dry, charging 500% interest on loans and bleeding them from the face and internal organs for not making payments on time. So from the opening brutal beating of a lackey sequence, we can tell this is not going to be a bouncy comedy but a retread of malice running over the tired workers while the Good have no chance to get Rich, and 1952 is not going to be a Good Year for them.

Enter ex-con Joe Gargen (George Raft) after a bum deal in prison for two-and-one-half years (As a professional boxer his fists were deemed lethal weapons, so when some cracker cracked a little too wise and initiated a fight, and woke up dead after one of Joe's punches, Joe took the fall). But now he's back visiting his little sister Martha (Helen Westcott) and her good-guy husband Ed (William Phipps) who's organizing resistance against the loan sharks at the tire plant where Joe follows a lead for a job. But when Ed has "an accident" coinciding with his lobbying for a police investigation, Joe contracts with the plant owner F.L. Rennick (Charles Meredith) and a union leader to infiltrate the criminal organization and wreak vengeance "his way." He quickly establishes himself with the crooked plant manager Charlie Thompson (Russell Johnson, who somehow escaped *Gilligan's Island*) and slimy, suspicious loan shark Lou Donelli (Paul Stewart). And faster than you can say "Permeable calandered halobutyl rubber sheet" Joe has worked his way into the good graces of Number Two man Vince Phillips (John Hoyt)--because after all, we've got only 80 minutes to extrude this story into a fully pneumatic form.

Since Joe the mole's rise through the dirty dealings is confidential, his new affiliations don't sit well with his new girlfriend Ann Nelson (Dorothy Hart), secretary to owner Rennick and sister to one of the principled line workers who feel betrayed by Joe. Uneasy lies the head that wears the rubber crown, but Joe, in a weird plot twist that stinks of mixed morality, creates new opportunities to snag a new untapped market--housewives who could use a little extra cash to pay the bills; he sets up a crooked laundry service catering to these unsuspecting warbrides, pushing profits through the roof while he keeps his own ledger of transactions to bring down the syndicate.

But when push comes to pummel, Joe is leveraged into giving Ann's brother Paul a Come To Jesus pounding for making waves at the plant, which causes Ann and Martha to disown him, even though he's actually secretly an avenging angel, friend of the working man. *Loan Shark* is one of those deliriously punchy thrillers amping up the sound effects so that every roundhouse jab sounds like a cement mixer plowing into a a wall of pectin. And over it all stands George Raft--an actor whose range I've never found particularly expansive--twisting his impassive features into two emotions: stoic boredom and simmering anger. . . even when he smiles. So his stiffness here is played for effect, leading us to believe underneath those dark suits he's sporting a constrictive skin-tight latex body girdle which restricts even his facial muscles as he tough-guy saunters like Gumby.

*Loan Shark* gives us an encyclopedia of hard-boiled dialogue and snide come-backs, reinforcing the tough vibe it's moving to establish, and Joseph Biroc's cinematography, especially in the final shoot out sequence and in the rain-darkened alleyways, really sets the mood (he would later work with top directors Robert Aldrich [most often], William Castle, Mel Brooks, The Zucker Brothers and win an Academy Award for *The Towering Inferno*, 1974). As with many Robert Lippert productions, the budget is small, $250,000, spent mostly on actors' salaries. Raft's fee was 10% of the final budget with a percentage of film's profits, of which there were none. But Dorothy Hart, in her film debut, is reasonably captivating though her career never flourished beyond two claims to fame: she was the tenth Jane in Tarzan pictures, and she was sued by Mary Pickford for a sum of $79,000 because the young actress refused to accept a role in the film *There Goes Lona Henry* (1947) fearing the seven-year contract would limit her future film choices.

Supporting goons Paul Stewart, Lawrence Dobkin and John Hoyt really complete the menace while drawing out some suspenseful scenes. Sure, on the whole *Loan Shark* is a trifle, a fine B-film directed by Detroit native Seymour Friedman whose film credits stayed safely in the Boston Blackie/Rusty the German Shepherd mold, only to gain some notoriety as supervising producer of hundreds of such soft domestic TV shows as *Hazel* (150 episodes), *The Donna Reed Show* (203 episodes), *I Dream of Jeannie* (26), *Gidget* (25), *Bewitched* (60) and *Dennis The Menace* (146 episodes). But it's an evenly paced noir that entertains with its modest rewards and brisk, purposeful direction.

Okay, truth be told, the relationship between Joe and Ann is a little hinky logically, and I still can't completely align the moral choices Joe makes to the final effect--because beating a pal to make it look good to the nasty boss, and hooking innocent housewives into overextending themselves to serve the greater good may not rank up there on the top rung of the moral ladder--but I guess in films like this you can't look too closely without emulating the actor whose head exploded in *Scanners* (Louis Del Grande) in 1981. For pure goofy noir fun, check out *Loan Shark*--just don't borrow it from me, or else I'll have to charge you late fees of 42% plus prime compounded hourly. Hey, a guy's got to live.
Happy Juneteenth.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/20/2020, 6:04 pm

Post #419: If I were to follow the advice of one of the main characters in today's feature, *Down In The Valley* (2005), this commentary would be my second shortest, for in the words of sixteen year old October "Tobe" (Evan Rachel Wood): "Don't say anything. Just think about it." It's an exquisitely poignant declarative, closing the film. And that's no spoiler, because I won't reveal anything important that leads up to it. But director/writer David Jacobson's narrative starring producer Edward Norton is so striking it defies most handy labels we could throw at it. Is it a romance? Yes, but don't sell it short. Is it a neo-western? Most assuredly, but more. Is it a coming of age story mixed with psychological profiling? That's a little reductive, but sure. Is it one of the most affecting studies of loneliness I've ever seen? Bingo. . . and yet. . .

Debuting in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, *Down In The Valley* presents the past vastness of the American West with the soulless commercialization of the present through the San Fernando Valley. There, Tobe (Wood) lives her empty Valley Girl existence with her solemn brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) and her fiercely protective father Wade (David Morse), a war veteran with a volatile temper when moved outside his comfort zone. In our introduction to Tobe she goes for a walk, "going nowhere" with Lonnie, ending up on an enclosed wired overpass as they spit on cars moving anywhere but here, away. But later, en route to the beach with her equally disaffected friends, as they stop for gas, they meet Harlan Fairfax Curruthers (Edward Norton), a holdover cowboy whose romance with the old west defines his very core.

After quitting his job in favor of accepting Tobe's invitation to see the ocean, Harlan quickly develops a close kinship with her which escalates into an intense love affair. Every bit the kind, well mannered cowboy of ages past as he meets Tobe's father, he declares he'll work hard to gain Wade's trust and respect, which of course raises Wade's suspicions. But as Harlan and Tobe's relationship deepens, and Lonnie is blended into the warm inclusion of it, Wade and Tobe lock horns more frequently in explosive arguments, and it teeters toward the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die, where the fundamental things apply. . . Moonlight and love songs never out of date, hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate, Woman needs man, and man must have his mate--That no one can deny. . .

Roughly the first half of this film operates under these premises, with youthful rebellion, sex, and drugs in moderation wrestling against angry adult control--juxtaposing the cage-like, cloying lower middle class house against the vast stretches of starless skies, wafting wheat, untouched vistas, and land spreadin' out so far and wide--keep Manhattan just give me that countryside. Into this breathtaking no-limits panorama ride Tobe and Harlan on a snow-white mare Harlan's "borrowed" from his buddy "Charlie" (Bruce Dern) for an afternoon's escape. Except, when returning the horse, we find "Charlie" claims that's not his name, he's never met Harlan before, he's called the police, and if he doesn't shoot the couple, he'll at least see them jailed for horsenapping. At this point that nagging doubt over Harlan's sincerity and mental stability that you've wanted to ignore starts poking at you a little more persistently.

A shocking twist hijacks our expectations within minutes, turning this beautifully photographed widescreen story of courtly love western-style into an excursion that becomes quite demanding. It's been a slow warm up that was necessary, blending in a jarring visit to a synagogue that redefines much of what we've experienced early on, giving *Down In The Valley* a distinctly independent film vibe. Some audiences may not appreciate the second half of the film because it does thwart expectations. Stephen Holden of *The New York Times* said, "it leaves you pondering questions about the American character that continue to haunt us: What's the difference between a rugged individualist and a psychotic loner? Where does puritanical morality shade into gross intolerance? And why is it our national fate to be so gun crazy?" But for me the final scene throws everything into the wind and leaves me to reconcile the paradoxes it presents, if they can be reconciled at all.

I'll be honest in my reason for choosing this film: I bought it a couple years ago, leveraging a good deal, because the DVD was autographed by Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood. I knew nothing about the film, hadn't read any reviews, and had enjoyed Norton's work in the past, but Wood's portrayal of Dolores Abernathy in *Westworld* shamelessly knocked me a$$ over tea kettle and made me seek out her other work. Simple and shallow as that. What a fabulous tea kettle over a$$ knock-out the movie proved to be, setting me right again.

Every actor in the film is layered and powerful with an inner life imploding with unspoken tension, giving forceful meaning to the missive "Don't say anything. Just think about it." They all explore the silent landscape of loneliness, not being alone, but feeling cut off from meaningful connectivity. Edward Norton's Harlan has a backstory that can be pieced together even while he masters the razor's edge of total truth and skillful deception; and that applies to himself as well. He's a cockeyed romantic whose ability to discern fantasy from reality is so indistinct, we aren't sure if we should lionize, stigmatize or empathize with him. But he becomes a living symbol of displacement, whether he's rhapsodizing over the night sky and personalizing the brave cowboy, the rugged individualist, or sleeping in the shelter of concrete embankments under the San Fernando freeway like a lost runaway child.

And it's easy to see why Wood's Tobe would be drawn to him, for he is charming and loving, guardian of the misunderstood, who completes her own restless wanderlust. Wood's age is betrayed by her world weariness, registered in her eyes and her ferocity directed at her escape--traits that fuel the same fragile illusions Harlan embraces. At the same time Tobe separates herself from her "soul mate" Harlan by not fully surrendering to Harlan's idyllic vision of carefree rootlessness, allowing her carefully constructed facade of resplendent independence to fall away revealing a girl who's got insufficient funds to cover the check her fanny has cashed. In her rush to extend her own fantasy, she is living the words of Aimee Mann:
Prepare a list of what you need
Before you sign away the deed. . .
It's not
What you thought
When you first began it
You got
What you want
Now you can hardly stand it though
By now you know
It's not going to stop
'Til you wise up.

Rory Culkin, though largely silent through the film, is equally caught in the web of isolation, having only Tobe to lean on. The trio of Harlan, Tobe and Rory is united against the common "enemy", Wade, who labors under his own solitude, at sea with the responsibility of raising two kids, unaware of his conflicting circles of protection and destruction. David Morse's coiled anxiety is present in every scene, fighting to shield his kids from reality while realizing too late those actions are destroying their spirit. So many fine lines are crisscrossing the characters' lives that, even though Enrique Chediak's sharp, bright cinematography is saturated with light, the emotional underpinning is as dark as da Vinci's finest chiaroscuro.

Chances are, you've not heard of *Down In The Valley*, just as it became a terrific surprise to me. Scott Tobias of The AV Club called it "mysterious and bold at every turn, and refreshingly removed from the commonplace," and 75% of the Amazon viewers rated it four or five stars. Again, as with so many "Independent" films, some audiences will be concerned with its pace, as the first half is rather dreamlike (purposefully) and its second half will either work for you or it won't based on your sensibilities. But I'm placing this one on top of my westerns nook--Yes, it takes place today, but for me it encapsulates the themes and mood of classic American stories like *Shane* (1953), *High Noon* (1952) and *Unforgiven* (1993), while striking out in its own unique direction.

Okay, I'm through saying stuff. Now I'll just go away and think for a spell. I wonder if the Lone Ranger ever expectorated from a butte on passing riders. . . .
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/21/2020, 5:03 pm

Post #420:  To fathers everywhere, congratulations on making this world better through the loving gifts to us all in your children.  I'm sure you join me in knowing that our kids (adults, in many cases) are our crowning achievements and most potent blessings in our lives.  They are tasked with a mighty cause to extend peace and dignity, shaping healing and knowledge wherever their lives take them. I'm not going to question how I have been deemed so lucky with my sons; I'll just thank God for them--and for your children--knowing we're in good hands and hearts.

And now for something completely different: A Cinemascope, Eastman color epic set in 1947 India which can still find relevance in matters of race today.  *Bhowani Junction* (1956), directed by George Cukor, showcases Ava Gardner who appears as Anglo-Indian Victoria Jones, the daughter of an Indian mother and an English train engineer, whose search for identity and inclusion unfolds against the chaotic and tempestuous British withdrawal from India.  As a member of the British army, Victoria fights a personal battle to find her place in the world--torn between her Indian roots and her dutiful service to the British, accepted fully by neither culture.  

Competing for her affections are three passionate representatives of the cultural conflict--her direct superior officer Colonel Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger), in charge of maintaining peace amidst the passive resistance and violent communist agitators guided by the elusive revolutionary Davay (Peter Illing); a childhood friend also of mixed Anglo-Indian status, rail traffic superintendent Patrick Taylor (Bill Traverse), whose growing disdain for Indians vexes Victoria; and Taylor's Ranjit Kasel (Francis Matthews, known for playing Paul Temple in BBC productions), a kind Sikh quietly active in the Indian independence movement.  Together this trio forms the perfect tangled triangle of emotions to pull Victoria into complex confusion of loyalties.

At the core of *Bhowani Junction*, however, is an examination of racism, as divides between the British and the Indian cultures and chasms that pit Anglo-Indians against Indians roil unchecked beneath the surface.  Those bearing a mixed racial heritage are disparaged, labeled intensely derogatory epithets of "Chi-Chi" while full-blooded Indians are considered by their detractors as "wogs," terms equivalent to the N-word in America.  Within the masses we find British troops against Colonial Indian army, Anglo-Indians standing alone against both sides, Communists against Congress, Hindu caste against caste, and Gandhi's passive resistance against revolutionary shapers of a "New India."  And though Savage opines, "It's about time the Lord started making all human beings the same on the outside as well as the same on the inside," Victoria the realist counters, "They'd only change it back again, the moment his back was turned."  Sad truth that underscores the same plague today.

Amidst all the strife, Victoria also faces another prevalent subjugation: man against woman.  Under Savage's command is Captain Graham McDaniel (Lionel Jeffries), a misogynistic officer whose unbridled lust for Victoria boils over one night as he accompanies her through riot-torn streets to her home.  Under the teeming railway overpass he violently assaults her, and in her stark panic she strikes him with a steel beam, crushing his skull.  Supporting her in the dazed moments following the attempted rape, Ranjit secrets her away to his mother the Sadani (Freda Jackson) to care for her and enlist the help of house guest Ghan Shyam (Peter Illing) to get rid of the body, little knowing he is actually Davay who will blackmail Victoria later.

Ava Gardner is at her peak in this film, registering a complex portrait of fear, betrayal, vulnerability and integrity under fire. That she was not nominated for an Academy Award is surprising if not just sad. Clearly she gave her all to this performance.  In her autobiography she wrote of the Jeffries' assault scene,

"And while I understood *theoretically* that you can't act a rape scene without it being brutal, angry, and terrifying, experiencing it was something else again. I felt terrified, hopelessly vulnerable, spitting and scratching like a cat. Defeated. I was almost out of my mind at the awful violence, the awful reality. . . .I left that scene without speaking and went immediately back to my trailer. Trembling and shaking, I swallowed an enornous whiskey.  At that moment, I felt sick with fright, as if I'd literally been fighting for my life. I'd known Lionel [Jeffries] for weeks now; he was a sweet man and I adored him, but I knew that if I didn't see him *quickly*, that scene was going to stick in my mind forever and I'd hate his guts."  Asking to director George Cukor to fetch Jeffries, she wrote: "Of course Lionel hurried over, I gave him my hug, and things were all right between us. No film scene had ever affected me so deeply before, had left me with such a nightmare sense of terror, and no scene would ever do so again. For which absence I am profoundly grateful."

*Bhowani Junction* remains a powerhouse of spectacle and history, informing as it entertains.  Stewart Granger grows from a seemingly harsh and arrogant military man to a human being with failures and feelings as the story unfolds. Adapted from the serious novel by John Masters, the film was refused cooperation by the Indian government, insisting on script supervision and an imposition of high taxes in response to Hindi terrorism at the time, making a shift in location to Pakistan a necessity. So receptive to the production were the Pakistani officials that they loaned a detachment of 400 men from the Frontier Force Rifle as well as a special police detail for scenes.  With an MGM budget of $3.6 million, the film grossed $4,875,000 at the box office despite some tepid reviews.

For my money its 110 minutes of raw drama with insight into a portion of history of which my knowledge has been weak at best.  Viewed through the metaphor of today's sociology and renewed passion for meaningful change, *Bhowani Junction* stands as a potent reminder that life-altering events and strong human passions will be a constant in our lives, and despite our differences, perhaps we can grow in our understanding and emulation of this exchange between Victoria and Savage: "Say, eh, I, all these weeks I've known you, this is the first time I've realized there's a human being inside you somewhere," countered with Savage's observation, "Oh, he's still there, is he? Good. Then, there's hope for us all."
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/22/2020, 5:24 pm

ost #421 (Smokers prefer Lucky Strikes 4 2 1): "Giddy" isn't usually in the top ten adjectives I'd self-apply, but it's pretty close to the humor I'm experiencing today. First of all, I received Father's Day phone calls from my sons, telling me they are safe and healthy; my older son and daughter-in-law sent me a personalized nearly-two-minute video from--gasp!--Sherilyn Fenn (Audrey Horne from *Twin Peaks*) congratulating me on being a father who is loved (!) and wishing me well [Pause for extended scream of shock and delight]; my younger son and daughter-in-law are coming over tomorrow for the first time since Christmas and the Covid-19 chaos (!), so Joyce and I are flying high; and to top things off, today's feature, *The Flame Of New Orleans* (1941), stars Marlene Dietrich in a fetching, fizzy and fun comedy which lurches up to my New Favorites List. Kurt Vonnegut said, “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So please enjoy a little slice of joy from my cake with this, director Rene Clair's first Hollywood film after a successful career in France and then England, where he filmed *The Ghost Goes West* (1935), another of my personal favorites. While critically considered an unvarnished flop at its time of release, *The Flame Of New Orleans* in my book is a charming little 79-minute comedy with Marlene Dietrich onboard with a parody of her famed screen image combining ice and fire. Here she is Countess Claire Ledux, subject of a New Orleans legend speculating on how she disappeared on her wedding day in 1840, her wedding gown floating down the Mississippi, her body never found. That tantalizing opening draws us into the spirited backstory of the enigmatic Countess whose power to seduce men still stands in memory.

In Clair's lighthearted ironical fantasy tone, Countess Ledux (Dietrich) employs all her coyly seductive prowess to attract the attention of wealthy, available men, most notably banker Charles Giraud (the delightfully proper Roland Young). Adorned in a luxurious ostentatious wardrobe, she first catches his eye at the opera, coolly appraising the performance then "fainting" in her balcony box when she's assured Giraud is watching. As Clementine (Theresa Harris), Claire's maid and co-conspirator, looks on from the nosebleed section reserved for domestics, she knowingly nods, preparing for the elaborate ruse which will follow.

In the clip accompanying this commentary, you'll see Claire taking a carriage ride in the country in anticipation of "accidentally" meeting Giraud in the second phase of her entrapment. Unfortunately, she runs afoul of down-on-his-luck ship captain Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot in his first comic role, known best for *King Kong*, 1933) and his pet monkey. Sparks fly between the two as Claire is drawn to the sailor, but the lure of Giraud's prestige, position and money is metal more attractive, and so she quickly elicits a marriage proposal from the prim socially refined banker.

In short order the crystalline past of the Countess is nearly shattered when she's recognized at her engagement celebration by newly arrived Russian gentleman Zolotov (Mischa Auer) and his companion Bellows (the always welcome Franklin Pangborn). Recalling her antics in St. Petersburg, which the Hays Code found quite objectionable at the time, Zolotov slyly winks and openly flirts, his reminiscences with Bellows overhead by Giraud's stiff and stuffy brother-in-law (Melville Cooper), who informs Giraud of her sordid past and nearly ruins the engagement.

But Claire is ever resourceful and manufactures a cover story that Zolotov was speaking of her identical cousin who frequented St. Petersburg and is now visiting New Orleans. With Clementine's capable assistance, Claire carries off a dual role in a mad dash to the alter. Dietrich, the consummate professional, subtly changes small details to complete Claire's masquerade in full view of Giraud's family and Latour's persistent interest. Of course it's one of those frilly comedies of confusion that will never beg you to consider its logical flaws and the blindness of the characters involved in the scheme, but that's of no interest here anyway. It's all for fun, even if the filming of the movie was not fun for all.

For one thing, Clair spoke broken English at best while directing, investing a great deal of time on the script "in great detail and very slowly" so that by the time it was done "an assistant director should be able to shoot it." Due to the language barrier the crew found the shoot very rough and Clair himself cold and aloof. Dietrich said, "I didn’t particularly like Rene Clair, but I didn’t hate him as much as the rest did. . . . [Approached about assigning Clair as director] At first I resisted, but finally out of loyalty to my old principle that doing your duty was all that mattered, I yielded."

She saved harsher criticism for her leading man Bruce Cabot: "[He was] an awfully stupid actor, unable to remember his lines or cues. Nor could Clair, who didn’t speak a word of English, lend him a helping hand. Besides, Cabot was very conceited. He wouldn’t accept any help. I finally resigned myself to paying for his lessons, so that he would at least know his lines." Critics of the film at the time of release also found Cabot and Young "horribly miscast," citing the need for a strong leading man with comic sensibilities like Cary Grant to meet the Dietrich standard. But Clair took it all in stride, suggesting, "I don't know now if it's as good or as bad as it's supposed to be. I think technically it's very good, but the spirit, you know, was half European and half American, so I don't know. It was my first film in America and I was very much impressed. I didn't know really if the people would like the film. You know, you never do a film alone, but you are always impressed by the atmosphere, the air you breathe. I didn't do any American films which depicted the modern way of life. I was always trying to escape."

Does all this manifest itself on the screen? If it does I'm woefully unaware of it, for I found the film a frisky flight of fancy with airy performances and a brisk direction that at times seems dreamlike in its framing of situations. It garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction, though it lost to *How Green Was My Valley* (1941), and it's easy to see how every dollar of its $817,000 budget is on the screen in lush detail. With a great supporting cast with Andy Devine, Frank Jenks, an uncredited cameo from Shemp Howard, and Clarence Muse, *The Flame of New Orleans* populates each scene with plenty of ancillary humor. Giraud's extended family is one of the greatest gatherings of oddly hilarious faces I've seen lately, quietly lurking in the background. (It's also surprisingly sexy, even though its original middle two reels were forsaken under pressure from the Hays Code.)

Interesting to me also is the depiction of Clementine and other black actors as smartly complicit equals in Claire's execution of manners. Though they are playing subsidiary roles as domestics, their facial recognition and Clementine's knowing glances, and smart, adaptive machinations, actually place them above their rich, insulated bosses as they possess more common sense and clarity of vision than the socialites they serve. This is such a welcome change from the 1940s stereotypes we're used to being fed. Clementine may wear the costume of the times (1840s) with the bandana'd upsweep, but she's at least a century ahead of the social curve and every bit the lady as the woman she helps in her subterfuge.

Rudolph Maté's sumptuous cinematography makes this classic Hollywood fare. It's just so darned compelling to drink in the shades of greys and middle tones in black and white, its scenes make a strong case against mechanical colorization. The close-ups of Dietrich, even behind the silken textures of lace, silk and chiffon, define Hollywood glamour, and when she looks upward her eyes shine with light and mischief, so large and expressive that her usual frosty gaze belies their size. If you're not a Dietrich fan, or if you've ever wondered What's all the hubub, Bub? surrounding her, give *The Flame of New Orleans* a try. You may want to revise your opinion. If you've never seen a Dietrich film, I find this one a great deal of fun, and her beauty--and her comic timing--is on full display here. It's not a big Whoop-De-Doo production, but in its simple charms it found my interest alive and kicking. Laissez les bon temps rouler.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 6/22/2020, 6:39 pm

So Jeff, are you a full on Dietrich fan now? I have been for many years. And I think the rolls she played outside the rolls she's best known for were some of her best.
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Post by ghemrats on 6/22/2020, 7:30 pm

Thanks to your prodding, Space, I am a full-on fan for sure. I think my lack of appreciation came more from streams of clips from *Blue Angel* and stereotypes, because--dang!--that woman is beautiful.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/23/2020, 2:18 pm

Post #422: Down rough cobbled streets in the dustbin alleys of Soho where sun- and moonlight scarcely travel, you'll find a jumping little pin-table saloon bearing the name of its owner, Luigi (Cesar Romero). Suave and continental when he needs to be, Luigi eschews violence but can loom menacingly when the situation calls for it. He has a pleasant relationship with the local constabulary, even though they are constantly near due to Luigi's sometimes questionable patrons and high rollers ready to let loose in their starched tuxedos and finery. And at his right hand is Danny "Limpy" Thomas (Victor Maddern) who carries with him a two-ton chip on his shoulders and a leaden gait which draws the sarcasm of everyone around him. So we invite you today to Luigi's, easily accessed by checking your morality and sneaking your ego past the hatcheck girl in a *Street Of Shadows, aka Shadow Man* (1953).

Originally a British noir clocking in at 84 minutes, *Street of Shadows* was edited by seven minutes for American audiences as *Shadow Man*, another perfectly ambiguous title for metaphor-poor Yanks. Having seen the original English cut, I can't testify what scenes were excluded from the truncated version, but I can only hope that those minutes were excised from the first half hour because I was seriously wondering where the film was going in that first third. Good, we meet Limpy, then Luigi, then a lot of nothing happens, then we meet rich socialite Barbara Gale (Kay Kendall) and her neglectful heavy gambler husband (John Penrose), then not a lot still happens except Limpy gets ridiculed for his name. Then Luigi meets Barbara and even more not-happens until the romantic Luigi instantly decides he's in love with her.

In the meantime the nice-guy-but-woman-resistant Limpy falls for Angela Abbe (Simone Silva), a pneumatic little tart who was Luigi's squeeze for a time until he discovered she was majoring in group dynamics in the School of Hard Knocks (if the apartment is rocking, don't go knocking) and the Beach Boys wrote a song about her, "Round round get around, I get around." This doesn't deter Limpy, though, as he has made a lucrative career out of being rejected and drawing sympathy from the audience. Is this going somewhere, we ask, just to give ourselves something to do while the plot wanders around the dark streets looking for some action.

Check your watch: Uh oh, time for a murder! A body found with a Ginsu Knife in the back in Luigi's office. Ruling out suicide unless the victim was a contortionist, Luigi, who has been courting Barbara in her house while her hubby gambles away the family fortune, logically concludes he should pick up the body, call Limpy, and hide it somewhere rather than summon the police. Tapping his temple while muttering, "Takes kidneys," Luigi is soon discovered and questioned, he escapes to investigate the murder (and surprise--there's no mystery: we can spot the killer forty-two miles away because he's the only logical choice, he has motive and opportunity, and he stands in a spotlight wearing a neon sign proclaiming, "Killer This Way"), and he persuades Barbara to come away from her loveless marriage in high society to live among pinball machines, slots, and weird little animatronic clowns that laugh, play a banjo and tell fortunes. What girl couldn't resist that?

Now I may be one of a handful of people who admired Cesar Romero *before* he painted his face white, donned a green-haired wig, and giggled like a ninny as The Joker on *Batman*, but I always considered him a smooth, debonair gentleman, even when he was cast as a villain. In my naivete I never thought much of his confirmed bachelorhood or wondered about his sexuality because he seemed to make the ladies knees buckle with an ingratiating smile; I still don't care about his preferences but admire his polite demeanor and his ability to get lost in a role. And in *Street Of Shadows*, though Victor Maddern steals the show and the spotlight, I almost wanted to believe he could charm the sneakers off Kay Kendall as easily as he's portrayed.

Edward Underdown as Detective Inspector Johnstone makes for an interesting counterpart as the "action" escalates (it's a creaky escalator; walking up stairs would be faster and more compelling). And between Kay Kendall and Simone Silva, who leads with her bosom rather than her thespian abilities, women are treated as stereotypical window dressing, though Kendall (once married to Red Harrison) does her best to breathe a little trapped life into her role. All the central characters in this film are broken or infirmed in some way--a club foot here, a promiscuous insouciance there, a gambling addiction, a repressed sexual anxiety sublimated by money, a less than totally creditable businessman, all tossed into a criminal salad with vinegar and oil.

But perhaps most notable is Eric Spear's musical score "complimented" by the harmonica solos of Tommy Reilly. In the words of Dr. Phil, how's that going for you? I guess it's personal taste, but whenever the mouth organ took over, I was reminded of Tom Waits's assessment of a similar instrument: "A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn't." Somehow in my mind noir and harmonicas don't mesh, not even if Stevie Wonder or Toots Thielemans is the artist. For me harmonicas and gritty dark dramas go together as much as a jaw's harp playing "Amazing Grace" at a funeral. But that's just me.

By now you might recognize that when I label a film "serviceable," it's not a glowing recommendation. But Cesar Romero is nice, Victor Maddern, according to *The Telegraph* has ""one of the most distinctive and eloquent faces in post-war British cinema." And Kay Kendall is fine at the outset of her career. All those pluses don't add up to 84 minutes of superior filmmaking, but it's certainly better than that time spent watching Konki The Clown, Fortune Teller, playing his banjo.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/24/2020, 4:24 pm

Post #423: For my money, there's nothing like the pure adrenaline rush of a pulse-pounding car chase to get your blood surging and heart racing. And in today's feature, *Shoot To Kill, aka Police Reporter* (1947), that's EXACTLY what you get--*nothing* like the pure adrenaline rush of a pulse-pounding car chase. What we witness in the first frames couldn't get your blood moving if you were perched in a chair connected to twenty-three Sears Die Hard batteries. And it's all for nothing anyway because it lasts all of forty-two dark and murky seconds (I timed it) before one of the cars bolts off a cliff. You'd find more exciting action from getting a Milk Dud stuck in your trachea.

But can I really complain when the entire movie lasts only 64 minutes, two minutes of which are dedicated to credits? Hell, yes, I can--I never heard of *anyone* associated with this picture except Robert Lippert, let alone the "stars" Russell Wade, Luana (Susan) Walters and Edmund MacDonald. Producer/director William Berke, "the king of the B's," directed over 90 films and produced 80, though I'm sad to say I've seen none of them, mostly cheap westerns, so let's give credit where it's due. And truth be told, *Shoot To Kill* does have three big pluses: Two of the top draws are nice cameo performances by the great jazz and boogie woogie pianist/arranger Gene Rodgers, who backed Coleman Hawkins' famous 1939 recording of "Body and Soul" and plays two of his originals here--"Ballad Of The Bayou" and "Rajah's Blues." His playing will knock your socks off, and his energetic enthusiasm is almost enough to make up for the
convoluted plot surrounding him. These two numbers are stand-out performances that should not be missed.

The other hidden treasure in *Shoot To Kill* lies in its swipes, smashes and clock-slide transitions so prevalent in stylish 1940s films. Long before Powerpoint's computerized sweeps leading from one scene to another, we had the optical printer, which enlivened the pace of film movement by introducing special effects such as wipes, fade-outs, push-offs, dissolves and double exposures. Quirky and at times inadvertently comic, these transitions make *Shoot To Kill* campy fun despite the goofy attempts to make a tough-talking noir. One extended fight sequence on multiple staircases and landings, filmed in slightly accelerated speed, is pure *Mystery Science Theater 3000* fodder.

Told in typical noir flashbacks, newspaper reporter George "Mitch" Mitchell (Russell Wade) listens at the hospital bedside as his friend Marion Langdon Dale (Luana Walters), wife of the newly appointed district attorney and lone survivor of the opening car crash, reveals her story. The crash has claimed the lives of her husband Lawrence Dale (Edmund MacDonald) and former gangster "Dixie" Logan (Robert Kent, billed as Douglas Blackley), and their strange triadic relationship slowly unfolds. Following the successful prosecution of Dixie Logan on a murder charge, sending him to prison for twenty years, Mitch arranged for Assistant DA Larry Dale to hire Marion as his secretary, a position which quickly led to romance between the two. With Marion working so closely with Dale, crime boss Gus Miller (Nestor Paiva) and his associates worry than the new secretary might stumble upon proof that they all falsified witness testimony to pluck Logan out of the competition. But Dale is too much in love to cut ties with her and dictates a letter to her proposing marriage, thus ensuring a wife cannot testify against her husband should his criminal activities become known. And isn't that what all women dream of in life--an everlasting love based on covering your slimy spouse's heinie?

To be fair, *Shoot To Kill* does pull out some genuine surprises in its low budget hour of fun. I was pleasantly rewarded for my attention even though all the actors seem to have escaped from the Munger Potato Festival Summer Stock production of *Guys And Dolls*. Berke's insistent use of close-ups pushes suspense into the Camp of Camp as flashbacks contain their own flashbacks and one really good smack across Marion's face proves to her "There ain't no good guys, there're lots of bad guys, there's only you and Mitch and he's no prize either." By the end of the picture, you have to give it to Marion for being such a tenacious nutcase for all the shifting gears her life has endured, but darned if you ever really empathize or identify with any of these jamokes.

It's far from the dregs of *Dr. Goldfoot And The Girl Bombs* because it offers the flair of a late '40s potboiler brimming with pseudo-tough dialogue and kooky romantic banter when a woman is involved. Try this snippet to determine if you have what it takes to go the full 63 minutes or if your time would be better spent shaving overripe peaches with a dull-headed Remington Shave-Pro:
George "Mitch" Mitchell: I was having a little chat--with Dixie Logan.
Lawrence Dale: What? But how could you?
George 'Mitch' Mitchell: Oh, it was easy. First he'd say something, then I'd say something.

I'll bet this script made Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Anton Chekhov wrist wrestle over the rights for lines like these.

So you might give *Shoot To Kill* a shot--if for no other reason than to hope your aim is true and you'll put it out of its laughable misery.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 6/24/2020, 6:50 pm

Ker Plop Goes the Cow Flop! Or something like that. I'd like to point out that I'm neither Siskel or Ebert. Or is that nor? Nor is that or??

I need coffee!
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Post by ghemrats on 6/25/2020, 5:30 pm

Post #424 (A Palindrome Production): At the 200 Day mark of consecutive film commentaries I posted a couple lists of favorite movies and cited today's feature, *Gun Crazy* (1950), as one of my top noir favorites of all time. Well, two hundred twenty-four days later that distinction is stronger than when I noted it. Watching it again last night pumped up the excitement and appreciation of a superbly directed, sexy slice of crime cake that so moved TCM Noir Alley host Eddie Muller to write an entire book about its greatness. If you haven't yet watched this classic, somewhat subversive thriller, jump in your digital flivver and speed over to search out the archives to find what the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress called "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Today's accompanying fan-made trailer perfectly encapsulates the razor sharpness of the film without giving away significant plot points that could spoil your enjoyment. You'll find every noir convention at work here--flashbacks, dark tensions, sexual entanglements, dramatic camera angles, tortured souls, inventive points of view and symbols of entrapment and paranoia. *Gun Crazy* (at one time released as *Deadly Is The Female* indicating the feisty femme fatale, one hundred pounds of barbed wire Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr) starts fast and never slows down, offering some of the most captivating camera work in its taut 87 minutes that inspired Martin Scorcese's one long take sequences in his best films.

Opening on a moody and gorgeous rain soaked street we meet fourteen-year-old Bart Tare (as a youth played by Russ Tamblyn who would go on to be featured in dozens of high-profile roles in *West Side Story* (1961) and *Twin Peaks*' Dr. Jacoby), who has developed an intense fascination with guns. But in a unique twist Bart finds himself completely unable to use a gun in harm against anyone or anything following his boyhood killing of a baby chick. So after some time in a juvenile home and a hitch in the army, Bart (now played by John Dall) returns home and meets up with his boyhood buddies businessman Dave Allister (Nedrick Young) and sheriff Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis) who visit the carnival. It is there Bart becomes enamored of petite Annie Laurie Starr, a featured sharp shooter whose act calls Bart into competition before the crowd. In a bravura contest the two do their darnedest to best one another, but soon they realize they are two smoking halves of a flaming whole as Bart joins the show as a trick shooter.

When possessive carnival owner "Packy" Packett (Berry Kroeger) tries to hold Annie's past over her, trying to force himself on her in a jealous rage, Bart intervenes, directs a warning shot at Packy, shattering a mirror and successfully getting Annie and himself fired. The young gun toters marry, quickly liquidating their savings, and Annie vows "Bart, I've been kicked around all my life, and from now on, I'm gonna start kicking back" even though she's "bad, but will try to be good." Thus begins their whirlwind crime spree, escalating from penny ante robberies to full-blown heists.

But always keep Peggy Cummins in your line of sight. She is so primal, even the most innocuous of scenes showcase her subversive nature. Watch carefully when she and Bart enter a local diner and order burgers, hoping the two nickles they have in their pocket will clang against one another and mate. When her dish comes, she's no dainty debutante nibbling away daintily--she wolfs that sucker, attacks it with a ferocious inner primal instinct, just as we capture a bone-chilling glimpse of her distanced but ready-to-pounce eyeing of Bart's sister in the cozy confines her the family kitchen several scenes later at the peak of the couple's crime spree.

In one 17-page carefully orchestrated bank robbery shot in one sustained take, director Joseph H. Lewis and several crew members crouched in the hollowed out back seat of Bart and Annie's getaway car, filming the nearly four-minute sequence. Only the main actors knew a movie was being filmed, so when Bart (John Dall) remarks, "I hope we find a parking spot," that was a genuine concern during the shoot, and when they escape, an actual bystander exclaims there's been a bank robbery based on the action on the street. What a spectacle that must have been--watching the car speeding away while two sound men with boom mikes strapped to the roof of the car, stationed there to capture Peggy's ad-libbed dialogue with actor Robert Osterloh, the Hampton policeman on the beat moments before.

Eddie Muller wrote, "Joseph H. Lewis's direction is propulsive, possessed of a confident, vigorous simplicity that all the frantic editing and visual pyrotechnics of the filmmaking progeny never quite surpassed." Lewis was a minimalist when it came to giving Dall and Cummins direction on how they should play their roles, saying, ""I told John, 'Your c**k's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions." To keep interactions fresh during heist scenes, he allowed the actors to improvise their dialogue, and the chemistry between Dall and Cummins is palpable. Dall's innocence and James Stewart delivery under times of stress perfectly telegraph his intense internal conflict, while Cummins' pouty hard edge softens dramatically suggesting, even though she's vainly manipulative, there is a sincere passion at work in her emotional investment in Bart.

So in addition to the camera work which is way ahead of its time, what makes *Gun Crazy* subversive? For one thing it truly glamorizes the couple--it's hard to draw your eyes away from them. Bart's twisted loyalties drive the drama as they gnaw, scratch and claw at his finer sensibilities; here is a man enslaved by his desperate need for Annie, losing his moral sense and self along the way. When Annie kills her supervisor at the Armour Meat Packing Plant, it's spiteful, egoistic and vindictive, far from necessary, but it also inflames the psycho-sexual dynamism in her, subjugating the weak willed Bart all the more and slashing at his warring factions of seduction and moral underpinning. In many films noir the female lead is a conniving bitch on a cracker with no emotional resonance at all, just a psychotic narcissist who sees the world as prey and nothing more. But Annie earns Bart's affection honestly, as evidenced by her inability to separate from him when they're on the lam. Somewhere in there is a genuine desire to wants to try being good, but her baser instincts overrule her, a default drive that kicks into gear when she's cornered.

*Gun Crazy*'s haunting conclusion (which I won't spoil here) is equally surprising and frightening in its deep fog and acoustic landscape, heightening the tension as Annie and Bart especially draw a painful final reckoning that circles back on the entire arc of their lives. The most decalicifying shot of that denouement is squarely centered in Annie's eyes as she peers over the bedraggled, exhausted chest of her prone husband, for one of the first times registering stark fear and resolution, boldly facing the void they've created. For sheer expressive panic I've never seen anything like it.

*Gun Crazy* been cited five times by the American Film Institute as one of 100 Years of 100 Movies, 100 Thrills, 100 Passions, movie quotes and AFI's Top 10 Nominated Gangster Films. It holds an 87% four-or five-star rating on Amazon and 97% of responses are positive on Rotten Tomatoes. It is a vital film that inspired French New Wave films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard who screened the movie for Arthur Penn when he was making *Bonnie And Clyde* (1967) for freedom of form and inspiration. Critic Sheila O'Malley really nailed it: "What is love to these two is not tenderness or communication, but how close they both can come to blowing the other one’s brains out. How far each is willing to go … now THAT’S love."

Wow. Just wow.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/26/2020, 3:33 pm

Post #425: Today's feature, *The Imposters* (1998), is the funniest movie you've probably never seen. Dipping back into it last night, I never stopped laughing from the pantomimed opening sequence down to the end credit roll (which you should stay around to watch; it might remind you of the self-consciousness of *Blazing Saddles*' (1974) ending). Co-produced, written and directed by star Stanley Tucci, in the voice of Bill Hader's Stefon, *this film has everything--an outstanding cast, the comedy reminiscent of Stan and Ollie and The Marx Brothers, a gay Grecian wrestler from Scotland, espionage, murder plots, mistaken identities, sumptuous art direction evoking the 1920s luxury class, a cross-dressing stowaway actor on a wealthy cruise, and breakneck speed that will leave you breathless.* And it's all brimming with innocence and such fun that I can't imagine the cast not having a blast filming it.

Consider this my highest recommendation, though it is rated R for some casual and infrequent F-bombing and sophisticated innuendo. But *The Imposters* achieves what most comedies cannot claim--the spirit of good old-fashioned screwball classics of a simpler time. Its wonderfully convoluted plot somehow zips along, tying all its disparate dangers together in a manner that dazzles while it gives equal time to all its characters. The following scorecard gives you the faintest whiff of what you're getting into:

*Arthur (Stanley Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are struggling actors constantly searching for their big break;
*Sir Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina) is a pompous, blustering and self-important "Shakespearean" thespian who gets into an altercation with our heroes in the style of Billy Gilbert or Jimmy Finlayson with Laurel and Hardy;
*Lily (Lili Taylor) is a helpful social director onboard the luxury liner on which the antics unfold;
*Meistrich (Campbell Scott, George C. Scott's son) is a high German ship steward whose clipped delivery and dictatorial courting of Lily is hilarious;
*Voltri (Tony Shalhoub) is the ship's First Mate who schemes with an unspecified foreign power to bomb the ship of "bourgeois" revelers;
*Happy Franks (Steve Buscemi) is a suicidal entertainer suffering the effects of his wife's filing for divorce;
*Mr. Sparks (Billy Connelly) is an international tennis pro who challenges all men onboard to wrestle as he did once "naked on the steps of the Acropolis";
*Maxine (Allison Janney) and Johnny LeGuard (Richard Jenkins) are assassins posing as French aristocrats with a plan to kill respectively a Sheik (Teagle F. Bougere) and socialite Mrs. Essendine (Dana Ivey) traveling with her morose daughter Emily (Hope Davis) who have secretly lost their fortunes;
*The Veiled Queen (Isabella Rossellini) has been deposed and is living in sad exile, though the Captain (Allan Corduner) yearns for her, his dream girl;
*Audition Director (Woody Allen) offers a cameo as Arthur and Maurice try out for a play before they set sail.

Equally wonderful is Baker Kramer (David Lipman), an unflappable bakery owner who unknowingly upsets Arthur and Maurice's scheme to con him out of baked goods, and sets off the entire propulsive string of events that frame the film. After a string of acting defeats, Arthur and Maurice accept two tickets to the theater, where the famed Sir Jeremy Burtom is slaughtering *Hamlet*. Following the egregious performance, our duo retire to a local bar where they boisterously demean the actor just as he walks in, overhearing their tirade and swearing vengeance. A small riot breaks out, causing the police to intervene as Arthur and Maurice are chased along the docks, finally taking refuge in an oversized crate in which they fall asleep. . . only to find themselves the next morning aboard a luxury liner bound for Paris. With the help of Lily they run afoul of all manner of eccentrics, including the agitated Burtom.

The musical accompaniment of all the dizzying set pieces is a jaunty mix of tango and Dixieland by William Cook and Gary DeMichele with a little Artie Shaw thrown in for good measure. It's all as bouncy and good-natured as the classic scores of the airy comedies of the Golden Age when tuxedo'd gents and bejeweled high-steppers float across sparkling dance floors beneath crystal chandeliers. And Tucci's conceit that this is all a beautiful facade (the people and their surroundings) furthers the unassuming joy of it all by employing glorious pastel painted mattes of the sea rather than rear projections or blue screens. It's all high key photography where even the shadows are coyly muted to emulate the Technicolor splendor of the thirties and forties. And the subtleties of camera movement reinforce the comic effect, as often Tucci will start with a tight establishing shot to dolly back slowly, offering the surprise appearance of Meistrich stalking Lily.

But the real joy comes from discovering this on your own as you follow our hapless thespians through their snowballing involvement with everyone onboard the ship. This is for me a gem of a film, a loving homage to Stan(ley Tucci) and Ollver (Platt) that proves we haven't lost our humor--we've just seen it go unemployed by and large in favor of envelope-pushing and sadly acidic proto-irony. Boy, do we need movies like *The Imposters* today. Thank God I pulled it out of my archives to give it another shot. I hope you will too.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Seamus on 6/26/2020, 5:19 pm

Really enjoyed this movie I will watch anything with Tucci in it. One of the best actors EVER. I even watched Core for Tucci.

Platt is another underrated gem....
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Post by ghemrats on 6/27/2020, 5:35 pm

Post #426: When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, the simple task of wearing a face mask will not only offer protection from viral enemies of the state but also help to filter the invasive stench of the self-serving political dung heap to which we've fallen prey and taken residence. And so it is with today's feature, the prescient *Bob Roberts* (1992), quietly essential viewing as we enter the Barnum and Bailey clown parade leading us to November.

*Bob Roberts* is a perfectly timed satire, another faux documentary of urgency and hand-held cameras with the searing appeal of *This Is Spinal Tap* (1984) and razor accuracy of *Dr. Strangelove* (1964). Chronicling the fictitious senatorial race in 1990 Pennsylvania, British videographer Terry Manchester (Brian Murray) follows the rise to power of conservative Republican firebrand Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins, who also wrote and directed the film) as he tackles the incumbent Democrat Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal, who was allowed to improvise all his lines). At first it seems an uphill struggle for the young newcomer, but he has at his disposal several key assets: a charismatic personality ready to draw huge crowds, a Top 10 singing voice which rings of patriotism, subtle racism ("Don't smoke crack. It's a ghetto drug," he advises a little girl), and ultra-right wing sensibilities, a mass of star-struck campaign groupies who blindly follow his every word, and a huge bankroll whose source is maneuvered to appear self-made. (The only thing missing is a colorful hat emblazoned with the slogan "Keep America Cool Again," or KACA.)

Bob's campaign is a pure media blitz as Terry navigates Bob's personal landscape through interviews with his divorced mother and father, campaign bus drivers, fanatical followers (including hilarious film debut cameos from a young Jack Black), former teachers, and political contacts carefully hewn by campaign manager Chet MacGregor (a mincing, slimy turn by Ray Wise) and Lucas Hart III (wonderfully stern Alan Rickman), Bob's campaign chairman. In an attempt to balance the mockumentary's scales Terry also includes footage of Brickley Paiste who conducts an above-board campaign while struggling to appeal to his constituents' better judgment.

But central to Bob's driving force are the carefully orchestrated public appearances, which appear to be far more open-air concerts than political stumping. Toting his guitar and singing inspiring songs of prosperity over urban blight and destructive drug dealing, Bob whips up the crowd with such rousing sing-alongs as "Drugs Stink," "Retake America," "Times Are Changing Back," "My Land," and "Complain" whose lyrics suggest,
Some people will work
Some simply will not,
But they'll complain and complain and complain and complain and complain
Like this: It's society's fault I don't have a job.
It's society's fault I am a slob.
I have potential no one can see.
Give me welfare. Let me be me!
I'm a drunk, I don't have a brain
Give me a pamphlet while I complain
Hey pal you're living in the land of the free
No-one's gonna hand you opportunity

In truth, the songs on *Bob Roberts* were written by Tim Robbins and his brother David, whose father is folk singer Gil Robbins of the Highwaymen. While the songs are as catchy ear worms (with Jack Black providing background vocals), Robbins refused to release a soundtrack album for fear people hearing the songs out of the film's context would misinterpret their savage satirical intent. Robbins also used Bob Dylan's career arc as a template for the film, as Bob's album covers are direct steals from Dylan's seminal works (*Blonde On Blonde* becomes *Bob On Bob*, for instance); and several scenes are faithful re-enactments of sequences from the documentary *Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back* (1967). His MTV-style video *Wall Street Rap* is a clear pastiche of Dylan's *Subterranean Homesick Blues* with a Robert Palmer homage thrown in to update the track.

As Bradley Paiste leads in the polls, a sudden manufactured smear campaign involving an attractive young woman surfaces and Bob's popularity continues its upward trajectory, despite the persistence of an independent journalist, John Alijah "Bugs" Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito, Gus Fring on *Breaking Bad* and Buggin' Out in *Do The Right Thing* 1989), who links the Roberts campaign to an old Central Intelligence Agency drug trafficking scheme and his cover agency, the anti-drug coalition Broken Dove. Naturally, because he's black and deemed an "agitator," Raplin is rebuffed by the Roberts camp, and following a tempestuous national broadcast on a late Saturday night comedy show hosted by an anti-Roberts comedian (John Cusack), Roberts is evidently shot. In the panicked aftermath, Raplin is charged with the crime.

"Ripped from the headlines" has long been a television cliche, but *Bob Roberts* is masterful in its exploitation of every political invention and convention around. Aiding Robbins in his commentary on American gullibility are star-studded cameos lending recognition to the whole feature. Among those spotted are Helen Hunt, Susan Sarandon (Robbins' wife), James Spader, Jeremy Piven, Peter Gallagher, Rebecca Jenkins, Tom Atkins, David Strathairn, Anita Gillette, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban, and Robert Hegyes (Epstein from *Welcome Back, Kotter*). Interviewed after voicing her disdain for Roberts during one of his calculated television interviews and being asked by Roberts, "Are you a Communist?" Kelly Noble (Lynne Thigpen) vents to Terry Manchester off screen:

"Bob Roberts is yet another of that faction that lives to destroy whatever good came out of the '60s, to rewrite the history of that important period. A period where the American people actually were informed and aware, and realized that they had a voice. They demanded that a war end. Bob Roberts is Nixon, only he's shrewder, more complicated, this Bob Roberts. Now here is a man who has adopted the persona and mindset of a free-thinking rebel and turned it on itself. The Rebel Conservative! That is deviant brilliance. What a Machiavellian poser."

And that is the heart of this caustic, cutting comedy, causing Tim Robbins to observe in 2018, "*Bob Roberts* came true." Some have called the film "chilling," "frightening," "teeth-grindingly excellent," "more relevant than when it was first released," and "the best political thriller since *The Manchurian Candidate*, but what separates it from a mere easily dismissed smear yawp is its balance--while skewering the Right (whatever that is) it trains an equally critical eye on the Left (again, whatever that is) while holding a mirror up to bandwagon jumpers. In the world surrounding Bob Roberts, America is composed of myopic grandstanders who could easily be entreated to stop the whirring steel blades of a circular fan by sticking their tongues in the blades' path. All you need is a carefully orchestrated stream of slick half truth or compelling flat-out lies (Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" which has overtaken unvarnished reality) and a boisterous fan club basking in jingoism.

In many ways, if we enjoy this film, we can thank the late Alan Rickman. Robbins said to *Entertainment Weekly*, "Alan Rickman . . . saved the film. God bless him. Yeah. He read the script, loved the script. There was not really much of a part, but he said to me, 'I think this film should be done.' He was riding on the success of *Die Hard* at the time, and he meant something to the financiers. So *Bob Roberts* was made because Alan Rickman signed on." Yet, as with any satire intended to provoke, some viewers will attack Robbins for his personal political holdings, but 79% of Amazon reviewers rate it four- and five-stars, with a score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Personally I have used this film in classes when we studied the effects of propaganda and media-shaping of opinion, and toward that end I enjoy *Bob Roberts every time I sit down with it. But see it for yourself, and inform your own decisions. Don't take my word for it--I rail at the news every night, internally yell at the top of my lungs over the morons who live to have cameras trained in their direction, and gnash my teeth at the mounting body count bursting from a defiant right to be ignorant and proudly racist. To it all I wave my KACA cap and, smiling, intone, "Whoopee Ki Yi Ay, mutha--"

In the words of Lucas Hart III, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go pray."
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/28/2020, 5:10 pm

Post #427: The real mark of a truly bad entry in Cow Plop Theatre rests in its inability to put out a trailer or offer *any* promotional material outside of some dime store posters. That's why today I'll be substituting this video for our feature's trailer because it's one of the weirdest solos I've heard in a while. Jamaican one-string guitar impresario Brushy One String has five albums to his credit, and has nothing to do with today's feature, *Mask Of The Dragon* (1951), but should start your day out right with a smile, even if you're missing a few teeth. And remember: If the chicken in the corn, the corn can't grow. Mama.

And now to our feature: *Mask Of The Dragon* (1951) is distinguished as the second shortest movie ever released at 53 minutes by--get this--Spartan Films. Truth in advertising. Since it plays like a third-rate 1950s escapee from a bad anthology series, it should come as no surprise to anyone that, after its initial release, it was actually trimmed to 26 minutes and offered as the pilot for a syndicated series--which of course sank into happy oblivion. Even halved it would have tested the audience's patience with silly performances from actors who never rose to recognition in Who's Who but headlined the What The Hell Was That list.

Only Sid Melton as criminal huckster Manchu Murphy, in a startlingly offensive string mustache and ornamental gown uttering phrases like "See Chiang Kai Shek and his cousin Cancelled Check!" in pidgin English, is recognizable from his 140 films and 99 television show episodes, including his feature role as one of the Monroe Brothers, Alf, on *Green Acres*. If you are a true triviologist, however, you might also recognize Lyle Talbot, Lieutenant "Mack" McLaughlin, from *The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet*'s next door neighbor Joe Randolph. Other than those two, *Mask Of The Dragon* became a new pair of cement overshoes for most of the cast.

With a plot cribbed from Dashiell Hammett's *The Maltese Falcon*, Army Lieutenant Daniel Oliver (Richard Emory), freshly released from active duty in South Korea, decides to make a few bucks transporting a jade dragon statuette to a curio shop in Los Angeles for a quick double C note. Do I need to suggest that's a dumb move in a dumb movie? For as soon as he arrives at the detective agency he manages with his partner Phil Ramsey (Richard Travis) and Phil's girl Ginny O'Donnell (Sheila Ryan), Dan is stabbed in the back by two thugs--Kingpin (Karl 'Killer' Davis) and his diminutive sidekick Manchu Murphy (Sid Melton), henchmen of Professor Kim Ho (Jack Reitzen) to whom the dragon was to be delivered. But lo to Ho, the dragon is nowhere to be found in Dan's baggage! If the dragon ain't for Ho, the Ho want Mo'. Mama.

Phil and Ginny investigate, because as somebody once said, "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's--it's bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere." Neither Phil nor Ginny are articulate enough to say that, but it's what they feel. Bank on it. Of course it doesn't hurt when Ginny receives a package from Dan dispatched from Honolulu but held up in transit because he forgot the zip code.

In the meantime--in this movie, ALL time is mean time--Phil is captured by Ho's men, bound and beaten by the burly Mr. Moto (Charles Iwamoto), subjected to "the Judo," which renders Phil unconscious, as if the plot and acting didn't already do him in. Seeing that he won't talk--he can't, for God's sake, he's unconscious, guys!--all but Kingpin leave, when a pair of shapely ankles and calves saunter in (we presume they're attached to a woman's body), knock Kingpin in the head with the butt of a gun, and untie Phil before running from the room. No suspense here, as there's only one other woman in the film--Dan's TV singer girlfriend, Terry Newell (Dee Tatum), who will also get a knife in the back during her solo on camera, but not before she can exclaim breathlessly "The Jade Dragon!" before crumpling dead on the stage. Lucky girl--she gets to escape the torture of this escapade, even though her band leader is sent into a tizzy because he doesn't know how to orchestrate a song called "The Jade Dragon."

Cue the ham-handed fight scenes demonstrating how men fight when they have timber in their crotches and have never been schooled in how to make a fist. Hint: Make sure there are a lot of breakaway boxes around you marked *Fragile* to lend an air of authenticity to a damp basement set. And to escalate the kitsch factor exponentially--and to ensure you won't spend more of your $234 budget on such extraneous expenses like background music--set every scene to a second-hand vintage 1939 Hammond B3 Tonewheel Organ, stolen from the studios of KNUT, Viking Radio, the seat of classic maniacally melodramatic soap operas during the Depression and WWII.

But the most memorable indication that *Mask Of The Dragon* producers can't find their butts with both hands and a road map comes in the last frame of the film, saving the greatest howler for last. Tidying up the loose ends, Lt. McLaughlin, Ginny and Phil, in full self-congratulatory mode, smile inanely at their job well done in the "Scientific Investigation Laboratory, Police Department" doorway. They exit, but Phil returns to look directly into the camera and instruct the audience, "Confucius say, When hero catch crook, time for picture to end." Ingratiating smile, exit and fade. Sweet Jimminy Cheese! They don't make them like this anymore. . . .

WARNING: Tomorrow's feature is alluded to in today's film when Phil says, "Fingerprints don't lie"--he's actually referring to the movie he made with THE SAME CAST and director Samuel Newfield just before moving on to *Mask Of The Dragon*. So our feature for Monday will be another sure-fire hit proving conclusively The chicken in the corn, but the cheese in the Fingerprints. Bet you can't wait. Mama.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/29/2020, 3:46 pm

Post #428 (Four times two = eight):  To quote the great philosophers Ren & Stimpy, "It is not I who am crazy--it is I who am MAD."  Call me Alfred E. Neuman if you must, but I subjected myself to another Stark Production last night, starring the same actors, using the same sets and same director, released in the same year while still scoring a running time under sixty minutes, and recycling the same lame Hammond organ score as yesterday's fiasco, *Mask Of The Dragon* (1951), but at least the names were changed to protect the insouciant.  If the title of today's feature, *Fingerprints Don't Lie* (1951) is true, the same cannot be said for the film it advertises, for it lies there like a seventeen-day-old beached whale emitting a roughly similar stench.

(I was going to offer another Brushy One String video, but substituted the new Yello video for a change of pace and a bit more head scratching; I hope Brushy won't mind.  Besides, "Waba Duba" makes more sense than our film.)

*Fingerprints Don't Lie* opens with Mayor Wendell Palmer (Ferris Taylor) working late at night and being bludgeoned to death with his Western Electric Model 302 Rotary Telephone; evidently his murderer too literally answered the Mayor's request to "Hand me that phone." Insert a dizzying, sweeping pan shot of life seen through the window of a speeding Greyhound bus to reveal moody artist Paul Moody (Richard Emory) on trial for murder, as forensic crime scene fingerprint expert James Stover (Richard Travis) testifies it's Moody's fingerprints that smudge the shiny patina of the murder weapon.  "It's a lie!" screams Paul, but Stover replies laconically, "Uhn uhn," giving the film its title.

Wracked by doubt but holding fast to his science, Stover is approached by Paul's fiancee Carolyn Palmer (Sheila Ryan) and one of Paul's models Nadine Connell (Margia Dean) who entreat Stover to prove Paul's innocence.  They explain that the Mayor, Carolyn's father, had disapproved of her engagement to Paul and rejected his bid for an expansive mural in the city, giving Paul a motive for the murder.  Big help, girls.  They also assert that the newly elected Mayor was on the trail of Police Commissioner Frank Kelso (Michael Whalen), who was accepting bribes from crime kingpin King Sullivan (George Eldridge) who ran the really big show in the city. The plot thickens, like Farmer Pete's rendered lard.

Like all honest investigators of truth, justice and the American way, Stover and the plucky Carolyn break into Kelso's apartment, finding a glass plate bearing Paul's fingerprints that don't lie.  So *that*'s how his prints got on the phone! Forgery with sophisticated camera equipment. Kelso returns to his apartment, discovers the plate missing and packs to leave town with his girlfriend, Connie Duval (Dee Tatum), who snarkily informs him she's really Sullivan's squeeze working under his covers. So it's Whack Whack, knock knock, whine whine, strangle strangle, and Kelso is hauled away by Sullivan and his henchman Rod Barenger (Kurt "Killer" Davis) while Stover, Carolyn and police Lieutenant Grayson (Lyle Talbot) plot to clear Paul and convict Sullivan.  Big whoop.

But take heart, Folks: Sid Melton returns, this time as Hypo Dorton, a police photographer who doesn't know how to use a camera or add substantively to the "plot."  As in *Mask Of The Dragon* he ad libs his lines with frenetic energy as his co-stars stand around like bored mannequins without the dummies' personality.  Ah, but something new has been added: In addition to the heavy-on-the-soap organ score, we have an acapella choir moaning wistfully between the organ stings for no other reason than to register their pain at being recruited for this movie.  But wait--there's more!  We also have Syra Marty as Syra, the Blonde Model in Paul's studio, and the most photographed woman from Switzerland in the 1940s. who would go on to refine her inability to act and walk upright in two more films, perhaps best known for marrying Elmer A. Frick, certainly a household name.

Clocking in at 57 minutes, *Fingerprints Don't Lie* treats us to a full FOUR MORE MINUTES than Sam Newfield's mashterpiece we saw yesterday.  Talk about more bunk for your buck, here's your film. To paraphrase Daffy Duck, "It's colossal! Stupendous! The biggest discovery since the Sweater Girl. One might even go so far as to say... it's turgid."  Hailed as "the most prolific sound film director" with over 250 films to his (dis)credit, sometimes directing 20 films in one year under the banner of PRC Productions (headed by his brother Sigmund Neufeld), Newfield may very well spring up like a Round-Up-resistant dandelion in some of my future commentaries.  I honestly don't go searching for them, please believe me, but they are out there--and even keeping six feet apart from them and wearing a heavy-duty non-medical mask crafted from Kryptonite will stay them from insinuating themselves into our disc players and Netflix pirating. You have been warned. Waba duba, Mama.
Enjoy.
Jeff


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Post by Space Cadet on 6/29/2020, 8:08 pm

After reading this last cinematic workup, I feel the need for a comfort movie double feature. But it needs to have a bit of a Yin and Yang vibe.

Any suggestions? My knee jerk reaction is Casablanca and A Night at the Opera.
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Post by ghemrats on 6/29/2020, 8:16 pm

How about *Leave Her To Heaven* and *Heaven Can Wait* both with Gene Tierney? Heaven's above.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 6/30/2020, 4:46 pm

Post #429: Deciding I'd better pull a change-up in my film commentaries, lest the fine, tolerant people who read them get bored to the point of seeking me out and attacking me in Kroger, I fished out a feature of which I had only vague memories. Filed away in the "Should I Really Have This In My Library?" nook, today's feature *Heathers* (1988) is one of those films that would NEVER be released today, flopped at the time of its initial release, and has grown into a deep cover cult classic that is much darker, more insidious, more sharply satirical, and more controversial than most Presidential tweets. How densely shaded is it? "Darkness warshed over the Dude--darker'n a black steer's tuchus on a moonless prairie night. There was no bottom." To compare it to a black hole from which no light escapes would be a step up. If you've seen it, you know; if you haven't, you've been warned.

In the years following John Hughes' lightly disaffected teenager films like *Sixteen Candles* (1984), *The Breakfast Club* (1985) and *Pretty In Pink* and Ferris Bueller's Day Off* (both in 1986), we've had a glut of contemporary high school movies, from *Clueless* (1995) to *Mean Girls* (2004), *I Love You, Beth Cooper* (2009) and *Thoroughbreds* (2017). But while those films studied growing pains and family ties (and other TV series with plucky teens) with blunted entrenching tools, *Heathers* eviscerates with a chainsaw. And not gently.

Viewing it today will resonate with uncomfortable echoes of reality since it deals with teen suicides, shootings and school bombings, so you should be prepared for an experience akin to slowing down on the highway to drink in all the drama of thirty thousand pounds of bananas sluicing all over I-75 from a food convoy pile up: There's humor buried in there as people slip and fall trying to get out of the way, but it's mired in tragedy.

Ohio junior Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder, whose character is named after Tom) is a satellite inductee of the wealthy cool girl clique, Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) and Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), the quintessential Queen Bs at Westerburg High School. Their shallowness and vindictive arrogance knows no superior, while Veronica finds them as compelling as they are repulsive, holding court with their envied coordinated and accessorized pastel souls. Okay: we know these snotty socialites, perhaps even having gone to school with them, as they have become archetypes who invent their own slang and persecute others cutely.

But black-jacketed new student Jason "J.D." Dean (Christian Slater, whose character is named after both James Dean and J.D. Salinger), whose father owns a hugely profitable demolition service, stands up to the browbeating from BMOC (Bullying Morons On Clearasil) football players Kurt Kelly (Lance Fenton) and Ram Sweeney (Patrick Labyorteaux) by producing and discharging a magnum filled with blanks, a grandstand play that intrigues Veronica. After an unfortunate incident at a collegiate party, Heather Chandler vows to discredit Veronica in school the next day, prompting J.D. and Veronica to commiserate over Heather C's tyrannical reign. Breaking in to the Chandler mansion the next morning, the two fix Heather a "hangover cure" designed to heighten her misery by inducing vomiting, with Veronica unaware that J.D. has mixed in a concoction of drain cleaner. Panicked when Heather ingests the brew and dies, plunging headfirst into a glass table and shattering it, J.D. suggests Veronica forge a suicide note which will throw a sad spotlight on Heather's inner turmoil.

The ploy works--the entire school sponsors outpourings of support for their favorite Heather. And so begins a string of murders designed to exact revenge against "popular" tormentors with Veronica becoming an unwitting accomplice until the viciously bullied Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock, a sensitive sort with extreme body image issues, writes her own note and attempts suicide by walking into traffic. Dazed but hospitalized, she is mocked even more for trying to be "like the popular kids" in her suicidal walk. When Heather McNamara also voices her depression on a radio talk show, Veronica recognizes her and interrupts her swallowing of a bottle of pills, vowing to break ties with J.D. and his quest to eliminate snobbishness by leveling the social field.

With Slater doing his best Jack Nicholson tribute (he actually wrote to Nicholson asking him to see the film), and Winona Ryder's fresh seventeen-year-old tour-de-force portrayal, *Heathers* more than slyly metes out gallows humor from these plot lines. In fact, Shannon Doherty, who was also seventeen when the film was made, burst into tears at the cast screening, crying, "I didn't know this was a comedy." It's all so straight-faced and dry as the Mojave, anyone unaware of the pre-ironic movie phase would be horrified by it, despite the almost total lack of blood, gore, nudity and the usual bag of tricks pulling in younger audiences. It's cynical without apology, frightening more for its prescience than its pitch black tone. Director Michael Lehmann purposefully photographed reaction shots of Winona Ryder and gave them emphasis to enleague her to the audience's sympathies, rather than hovering over close-ups of Christian Slater.

The casting of the film works splendidly, though a huge roster of stars were considered for key roles. J.D.'s character tested Brad Pitt (who was considered "too nice" for the role), Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey, Judd Nelson and Jason Bateman. Veronica's part was initially written for Jennifer Connelly, followed by Justine Bateman (Mallory on *Family Ties*), Dana Delaney (*China Beach*), and Drew Barrymore. Heather Graham was approached to play Heather McNamara, but her parents refused to let her, then aged seventeen, to play such a vicious role. Writer Daniel Waters wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct his vision, since Kubrick "was the only person that could get away with a three-hour film," in its original draft, an even more aggressively dark version. Even at 103 minutes, the film will most assuredly snap at many viewers' emotional investment; *Heathers* can well sit among those films that move me to suggest "I'm glad I saw it, and it's undeniably a well made film, but I don't know that I'll want to watch it again [any time soon]." For me I'd add that final caveat, others won't.

Is *Heathers* funny? Well, not in the traditional sense of today's Adam Sandler/Steve Martin/Zach Galliafanakis/Mel Brooks way, and light years away from Hope & Crosby, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello. It is rated #64 on Rotten Tomatoes' 100 Essential Comedy Movies just below *Beverly Hills Cop* (1984) and *Office Space* (1999). It holds a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 92% four- and five-star rating with 674 viewers' assessment on Amazon, so it's a "deliciously nasty" film for sure. Whether you find humor in it or not will depend on your own humor-mometer. It does hold a strong supportive fan core, in addition to being one of the most cited films for slang invention in the Oxford English Dictionary.

It's all very stylized and expressionistic, at time rolling over into surrealism, but between the strong visual appeal and the sophisticated, highly creative patois of the characters (real people don't speak with this much self-conscious wit, more's the pity) *Heathers* is easily elevated from the standard high school tract and tirade into something more subversive--a clear visualization of angst and desire for acceptance at any cost. The physical color palate moves seamlessly from high tint pastels to added-grey pastel tones to indicate our submersion into bigger stakes; of particular interest to Veronica's bedroom sanctuary where she tears through pages of her diary like a woman possessed is the blue hue, and as a grace note, the pulls on her bedstand fashioned as a comma, colon, question mark and other nods to punctuation.

Though at the time of its release, it took a real pummeling, regaining a mere $1.1 million of its $3 million budget, *Heathers* has far surpassed its initial failure to have spawned continually updated DVD releases, with 4K restoration and a 30th Anniversary Blu-Ray last year, a short-lived television show, and two off-Broadway New York theater productions in 2014 and 2018. While persistent calls for a sequel are voiced, with Winona Ryder at times leading the charge, writer Daniel Waters seems slow to pick up the pieces left at the end of the original.

As for me, the original film is enough. Very.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 7/1/2020, 4:48 pm

Post #430 (Holy Cow, I didn't realize it was so late in the afternoon): Twice or thrice upon a time, or maybe even more than that adjusted for inflation, movie mavens flocked to the theaters to indulge their nostalgia for childhood, fairy tales and bloodlust. Grimm wasn't just a brand name but also an attitude as all those bedtime interludes saturated with violence finally made the leap from the night stand to the big screen, while the small screens played Games of Thrown Battle axes and questionable at best, much-frowned-upon family barbecues and liaisons.

Snow White drifted, Maleficent lived up to her name, and even the real American Hero Honest Abe Lincoln took up arms against a sea of troubled vampires. Times they are a'changin', Bob--even Bambi has met Godzilla at the movies. And so it goes with today's feature, *Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters* (2013), as we follow the adults Gretel, rebounding from an eating disorder, and Hansel, pausing in the heat of battle to take inject a shot of insulin for his diabetes, as they live with the traumatic effects of the old crone who sought to have them to dinner with a nice Chianti and some fava beans.

Jeremy Renner (*The Avengers* 2012+ films) and Gemma Arterton (*Quantum of Solace*, 2008) star as the titular brother and sister in this action-horror film co-produced by Will Ferrell and written and directed by Norwegian Tommy Wirkola (best known for *Dead Snow* 2009). Let's get this out of the way right up front: *Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters* boasts all the hallmarks of the beginning of a franchise, though no sequel has been announced and a television series is being bandied about. Now I'm not a huge fan of horror films, though I own my share of well executed (arr arr) examples of the genre; I deplore the *Saw* movies and similar mean-spirited slash-and-splash-a-thons, and after Wes Craven left Freddy alone to sharpen his nails, I'd be overjoyed if purveyors of Nightmares, summer camps and chainsaw inbreds were forced to watch reruns of *Full House* for the rest of their lives as a penance for their astounding lack of artistry and intelligence.

That said, I enjoyed every raucous minute of *Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters*. Call it a deeply covert guilty pleasure, but seeing the duo taking on covens worth of scraggly bags with inventive Steampunk weaponry was silly romp into the Forest of Mindless Retribution. Fair warning though: This version is definitely, defiantly not for the kids; it earns its R-rating honestly with a handful of anachronistic F-bombs strategically placed thoughout, one glimpse of a bare bodkin and backside of a comely maiden (Finnish Pihla Viitala in her first English speaking role), and fairly brutal head explosions and body implosions. None of this I found unbearably gruesome, just standard fare for a cartoonish glibness, though this is another in my expansive library of films my wife would never sit through because it serves no noble mission, save to entertain.

And entertain it did--to international markets with a worldwide theatrical gross exceeding $226 million, a tidy profit for a $50 million budget. Domestically it fared less well, opening with a special midnight-showing premiere of $500,000, a "so-so result," according to industry prognosticators, finishing its opening three-day release at $15–17 million. Reuters reported that while the film "was no blockbuster in the United States," it was much better received in other countries for a $205.9 million total haul, including $24.1 million in Brazil, $19 million in Russia, $14 million in Mexico and $12.8 million in Germany, making it Paramount's fourth highest-grossing film of 2013, following *World War Z,* *Star Trek Into Darkness*, and *G.I. Joe: Retaliation*.

So what's the plot? Hansel and Gretel, now adults, search for and kill witches. Got that from the title, did you? Want more? Okay: In Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, our duo respond to Mayor Englemann's (Rainer Bock) request for help and arrive in time to prevent Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare) from executing a beautiful young woman named Mina (Pihla Viitala) for witchcraft, immediately creating animosity with the Sheriff. Augsburg has suffered the kidnapping of its children, six boys and five girls, each representing a month of the year by their birth. Capturing the Horned Witch (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), Hansel and Gretel discover the children will be used as sacrifices during the Blood Moon, which will grant the witches immunity to fire.

As to be expected, Muriel (Famke Janssen), a shape-shifting grand witch and head of the covens, gets pissed that mortals are interfering with her plans and sets fire to the town, grabbing the final child needed for her ceremony. Both Hansel and Gretel are wounded and separated in the forest, as Gretel is viciously attacked by Berringer and his men for making them look bad in the eyes of the town. Encounters with Mina and Muriel's troll servant Edward (Derek Mears, with voice talent from Robin Atkin Downes) shift the odds for the remainder of the film. No spoilers.

Like another of my favorites, *The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension* (1984), this feature is quirky enough to be fun but really depends on the receptivity of the audience to soar. Director Wirkola has said, "First and foremost, it's an action movie, I think, with horror elements. And of course some dark humor as well. But the action and horror are the most important feelings I want." With Renner's concurrent films *Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol* (2011), *The Avengers* (2012) and *The Bourne Legacy* (2012), not to mention his nominations for awards for *American Hustle* (2013), action came as a natural escape to him: "as this was a fairy tale with no stress like the other action movies I'd done recently. I was having so much fun hanging on a wire like Peter Pan, hanging onto a broom and doing other crazy stuff . . . . That was one of the most fun jobs I've ever had because there's something magical about that old world, fantasy thing."

Similarly, Gemma Arterton commented that she "loved every minute of it. . . . Hansel & Gretel have this unstoppable bond but they're also so different from each other. She's the brains of the operation. He's the brawn. He's the joker and the show-off. She's more the watcher, the researcher, the one who tries to really understand witchcraft." Wirkola acknowledges two strong influences in his filming (both of whom coincidentally are favorites of mine): Sam Raimi (*Army of Darkness* 1992 and *The Evil Dead* films 1981+) and Quentin Tarantino. *Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters* resonates with a more subdued comic influence than *Army of Darkness* but still manages to insert a few chuckles, while the bloodletting is a bit more controlled than Tarantino's usual over-the-top style. The various witches could easily have been devilish rejects from Raimi's early efforts right up to *Drag Me To Hell* (2009).

While there is some computer generated polish added to the film, most of the effects, including the witches flying on brooms, are practical, filmed on the spot. Renner recalled, "Most of it is all practical, even the witches flying on the brooms – it was pretty much all practical. They were all on wires, it was awesome! There's a scene [where] I come down around and literally there's 60 witches there. The rock structure was maybe 70 or 50 feet tall, it was massive, and I'd be shooting these witches and they'd just be flying off on wires."

Yup, this film tends to polarize audiences--some think it's pedestrian, cliched, sophomoric and brutal, while others think it's fiery, tongue in cheek, aware of its silliness and too reserved with only five F-bombs and quickly dispatched deaths (there is a body count of 65 (22 humans, 43 witches) compared to the record holder *Lord Of The Rings: Return of the King* (2003) with 836 (mostly Uruk-hai and Orcs: 524)--so 65 is even less than *Kill Bill, Volume 1* (2003) with 95. As I said, your mileage appreciation or lack thereof will vary.

My taste may be all in my mouth, but for me gorging on a little senseless action from time to time in a basically harmless 88-minute bit of celluloid sure beats watching my blood pressure rise after a half hour with the news. Just don't let kids near the candy house.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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