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The Jungle Book (1967)
"Birds of a feather should flock together"
There is an interesting - possibly unintentional - racial subtext with this film, which ends with two of the lead characters returning whey they "belong". Maybe such things weren't intended with a cartoon film about singing bears who give boxing lessons, but it makes it one of the thematically more intriguing Disney offerings.
Technically this doesn't always look like it was made 25 years after Bambi - while the art has a certain elegance in places, it's also scrappy and looks almost pencil drawn at stages. This isn't an express criticism, as it gets by on charm, which it has a considerable supply of.
Centrepiece of the film is the sequence with King Louie, a jazz/scat singing orangutan. Although the idea of having someone possess the mannerisms of black culture while in the form of a monkey is a questionable feat, his signature song - wanting to appropriate the manner of another man in order to share in his freedoms is nicely sardonic for 1967.
However, if there's one criticism of the film that holds up, it's how episodic the whole thing is. Introducing a great villain like Shere Khan three quarters of an hour into the runtime is quite a novel feat, but other characters are picked up and dropped throughout, with very few constants. Louie doesn't appear again, and just as the film begins to wind down, we get some vultures with "what's that supposed to be?" English accents. It's telling how old-hat Disney could be at times in that what were inspired as parodies of the Beatles end up singing a Doo Wop number.
Ultimately while the film has touches of greatness, and is a very pleasing time-filler, the unevenness of the story progression causes it to feel a little flat when viewed as a whole.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
An odd mix of overearnest and bawdy
I caught up with this John Hughes movie after reading that it was a direct influence on his later Pretty In Pink, and also is more highly regarded.
It's something of a surprise, given that the comedic elements here are broad and garish, and the emotional elements are really without payoff. This is the world of the 80s, where drink driving, taking advantage of drunk girls and racial stereotypes are all just everyday occurrences. (Of the later I can't complain too much as Gedde Watanabe does seem to be genuinely enjoying himself, bless him).
Having just rewatched Pretty In Pink (and rated it a perhaps overgenerous 8) I was astounded that it not only stands up as a guilty pleasure, but a genuinely decent movie. You may have small niggles, like Andrew McCarthy's eyes continually opening so wide it looks like he's having an aneurysm, or wondering how you ever thought Duckie was straight, but it's a well constructed film with emotional pay-offs.
Sixteen Candles, in contrast, has only shallow thrills. There's no real reward with the relationship between Ringwald and Schoeffling as they don't even speak until the end of the movie, and their dialogue consists of trite lines like "Make a wish." "It already came true". Away from the stilted romance, and Anthony Michael Hall as unlikely friend/borderline sex pest, we get comedy sound effects to cement the overplayed comedy elements, such as a Chinese cymbal noise every time anyone talks about Long Duk Dong(!)
This isn't a bad movie. In many ways, it's quite a good one. But it features two disparate elements that don't gel together all that well: while I can see how it went on to be vastly improved in the guise of Pretty In Pink, the other 50% of the movie went on to be Weird Science. Not that Weird Science is a terrible picture, but it's a diametrically opposed one, and this - complete with a topless scene and a blowjob reference - jars badly with the core subject matter.
John Hughes was just in his early 30s when he made this, his sixth movie but the first he directed. The follow-up, The Breakfast Club, went for overreaching earnestness, and I received many a heated private message when I criticised it in a 2001 review. But fast-forward two years and you get the run of Pretty in Pink/Ferris Bueller's Day Off/Some Kind of Wonderful, three solid movies that deserve to be revisited. John Hughes was able to tap into teen concerns and was known as one of the masters of the coming of age movie... he just needed to come of age himself.
Actually, it's more than that. It's arguably Jim Jarmusch's best film in his first thirty years of making features.
Coming in the middle of his oddly experimental stage of making films with actual plots, this one appears between similarly story-oriented pictures Dead Man and Broken Flowers (as well as the more typically plot less Coffee and Cigarettes) as one that's narrative driven.
Jarmusch's feature debut, Permanent Vacation, contained the line "What's a story anyway, except one of those connect-the-dots drawing things?" It's a philosophy the gifted director seemed to take on board for the majority of his works, giving us a series of variable but nearly always entertaining movies, most of them without anything you could regard as a traditional narrative.
Ghost Dog is one of the few that bucks this trend, with an alien beginning-middle-end set up. Although often referenced as a homage to the excellent 1967 movie Le Samouraï, the connection between the two isn't as pronounced as you might think. And, being a Jarmusch film, it's not without his own quirky brand of humour, from Italian American gangsters who listen to Flava Flav and watch 1940s cartoons, to a hit-man who communicates with pigeons and has a best friend who is a French ice cream vendor.
A talented man with a fairly unique take on movie making, his works are always worth seeking out, whether they contain rigid story lines or not. Ghost Dog may be his best to date, but his other works are often just as entertaining.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
"That knocker must have been used in the old days to arouse the entire household."
A quote for fans of British slang there. There's plenty of more amusing moments, intentional or not, in this second Frankenstein sequel from Universal. Not for nothing did this film get extensively mined for Mel Brooks' classic Young Frankenstein, and the increasingly over-the-top performance from Basil Rathbone is a particular delight.
When Rathbone (the titular son), his English wife and their inexplicably American-accented young child travel to his father's old home predictable things begin to happen once more. Gone is the real subtext, wit or invention that the first two classic movies offered, and in its place is something that's merely okay.
Karloff is sidelined here, not getting real screen time until almost an hour into the movie, and it's left to Rathbone to carry the film as some kind of extended drawer room farce. It works well enough, even though it's all pretty much repeats, and the four sequels that followed were even lesser returns. Although the Hammer Frankenstein movies of the 50s and 60s didn't reach as great heights (and arguably lower lows), they were able to display a freshness and invention that many of the Universal sequels lacked.
The films that follow this were produced as B movies, and without Karloff's presence or the need to credit Mary Shelley for story. Although incredibly formulaic and repetitive, many of them were still watchable and quite charming, with only the melodramatic and dry House of Dracula really killing off the franchise for good. By that stage Universal's output had dropped in quality so far that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was not only an effective revival of the series, but one of its high points.
Son (and the follow-up, Ghost) strips away one of the most discussed subtext of the first two Frankenstein movies by giving Colin Clive's character sons. It also takes away any attempt at genuine artistry, as well as Karloff's voice. Frankenstein from 1939-1948 was worth watching as a lightweight piece of fun, most of them carried by Lon Chaney as the Wolfman. But for Frankenstein films that had any artistic merit, then stick with the first two.
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Worth a look only as a study of the director's early work
Back in 2000 I posted three unnecessarily flippant reviews of David Cronenberg films, including the two that followed this. But while the Cronenberg of 2000 wasn't a stranger to critical appraisal, or even mainstream commercial appeal (particularly in the 1980s), it was easy to be flippant about a director who was so well known for body horror, verging on schlock.
Fast forward to 2012 and Cronenberg has managed to completely reinvent himself, a late career renaissance as he prepares to enter his 70s. That the director could build a career for thirty years as the master of visceral horror and then completely reinvent himself is an extraordinary feat. That's not to say that his works of the new millennium haven't been sexually aware, or even in possession of an asymmetrical prostate, but suddenly he's a man of serious critical attention.
Which makes it an ideal time to reinvestigate his early back catalogue, in particular his first four films. 1966's student film "Transfer" is a study of mental illness, an extremely rare, 7 minute student film that, to date, only 55 people have seen on the IMDb... myself not included. Following this was arguably the most accessible of his first four efforts, 1967's 13m student piece, "From The Drain". So esoteric that there are wholly different plot summaries of it on the net, this story of two men in a bathtub is open to interpretation.
The first film proper was 1969's "Stereo", a silent black and white piece with narration, lasting a little over an hour. Crimes of the Future follows this trend, though adds colour and ambient sound to the mix, the minimalism possibly there as a budgetary requirement as much as a need for the avant garde.
As films to study, they're more than worth anyone's time, particularly fans of the director and his work. As entertainments, they're largely null and void, a future auteur trying out his craft rather than narratives to engage. Five long years passed before Cronenberg got to do another film, then averaging a picture every two years or so from 1975's "Shivers" until the present date.
Seeing "Shivers" again as part of this study, I realise I was perhaps too hard on it, and it's interesting to see Cronenberg emerge from avant garde director to man behind a serious (albeit black humoured) narrative. The jump to full audio and speaking parts does make his direction look a little clumsy in places, but this was a man honing his craft via experience.
The issues with "Shivers" the debatable misogyny, the crass titillation and suspect subject matter are actually all present in Crimes of the Future, right down a sequence that involves paedophilia... in this case it forms Crimes' denouement. Such story elements are in highly questionable taste, even for satirical science fiction, and do paint the young Cronenberg out as a man who wanted to shock. However, without these early ventures he may never have established a platform for himself as one of the most notable directors of the modern age.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
"No use complainin'"
Turned down by Harry Belafonte who found it "racially demeaning", the lead role in this film was then offered to the tone deaf Sidney Poitier, who was required to mime to Bobby McFerrin's dad. Placed under enormous pressure to take part, to the possible detriment of his career if he declined, Poitier reluctantly agreed, giving a professional job while The Defiant Ones was waiting. He spends the entire film on his knees, both literally and metaphorically, at least spared the indignity of any close ups by Otto Preminger's stagelike direction.
Co-star Dorothy Dandridge was also unenthused to be taking part in this questionable play, with only Sammy Davis Jr. really wanting to be there. It's not an awful film, in fact it has its plusses in many ways. The $7 million it cost can be largely seen on screen, some of the songs are genuinely worthwhile, and the puerile might get a laugh or two out of the Crabman's song where he extols the virtues of crabs.
Oddly, Belafonte released an album of tracks from the musical with Lena Horne the same year the film was released, as if to suggest that principle can only stretch so far. However, he was in good company as songs from the musical have been recorded by, amongst others, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. And although a lot of the lyrics are somewhat patronising, Richard Dawkins would surely tap his feet to "It Ain't Necessarily So".
Ultimately the movie wasn't successful critically or commercially and is generally forgotten today, while films like The Defiant Ones and In The Heat of the Night live on. If anything, it stands as a film that saw one man make sacrifices in the name of greater future good.
A Piece of the Action (1977)
Sidney bows out...
As the film that marked his initial retirement from acting, then this isn't a bad film for Sidney Poitier to bow out on. He even gets to teach a class of unruly kids and educate them on discipline and self-respect, almost like it was a decade earlier.
Although this is regarded as part of the Cosby-Poitier comedy trilogy, A Piece of the Action is more like a comedy thriller than an overt humour vehicle. Most of the laughs - if, indeed, you agree there are any - arise naturally out of the piece, rather than Poitier's friends coming on and doing hammed up "turns" as was the case in Uptown Saturday Night. The film has a lot to say on the human condition, and, while heavy- handed in the way it says it, does so well. Poitier - now fully ensconced in making black cinema, seemingly as a reaction to the sexless perfect black men he'd played to a white audience for so long - even gets to defy that he's anyone's "boy" in this movie. And until one of his comeback roles gave us an "MF" (1992's Sneakers) then this is the only place you'll hear him say something like "titty sucker".
Seeing these films through the eyes of Harry Belafonte is perhaps most rewarding, as he was scathing of the original script to Uptown Saturday Night in his 2011 autobiography. The star, friend, and sometimes rival of Sidney revealed that he found the comedy to be predictable and trite, and advised Poitier to stay one step ahead of the audience by bringing in a sea of names, one after the other, to do unconnected skits... himself contributing a Godfather parody. Belafonte had no interest in minor roles for the two sort-of sequels, and, having thought they'd got away with it once, had no desire to chance it again.
Another comment of Harry's was that Poitier had first stepped into the director's chair to replace a director who was removed from 1972's Buck and the Preacher. Belafonte noted that, while serviceable, everyone knew that Poitier wasn't Martin Scorcese, including himself. It's a fair assessment, and a reasonable profile of a man who was just interested in getting movies made without undue artistic flair. Sidney Poitier wasn't in the same league as many of the men that had guided him before a lens, no Stanley Kramer, or no Norman Jewison. But then he was capable of delivering a diverting package that was easy for anyone to enjoy, and no one ever rated Stir Crazy on its mise-en-scène.
For Love of Ivy (1968)
A weak follow up to a career peak...
Sidney Poitier made some films that have become largely forgotten over the course of his career. When you've made over 40 films in your initial run, pre-first retirement, then there's naturally going to be some that slip through the cracks. And today it seems hardly anyone talks about Brother John, The Lost Man, Good-bye My Lady or Virgin Island. But what could perhaps be surprising is that the film he made right off the back of his biggest commercial success should be so overlooked today.
In 1967 Sidney Poitier was the most successful box office star in the world with three big hits in cinemas. Just one year later and he's only got one release, this stagily-directed semi-farce based on Poitier's own storyline. The main theme sees Poitier play possibly his most dislikeable character, arrogant businessman Jack Parks, match-made against his will with a black maid seeking some form of personal empowerment. The film concludes with a title song, informing us that what that empowerment amounts to is the need for love. That's right... although the film touches on themes of emancipation and black pride over the course of its runtime, it turns out all the titular Ivy needed all along was a good shag.
Chief matchmaker Beau Bridges does the best with what he's got as a representative of the 60s counterculture, but his stoner fixations seem today, like the main subtext of the movie, somewhat quaint and parochial; patronising rather than groundbreaking. Look out also for Parks' angered expression when Bridges' characters asks if he's gay, or the confused and confusing monologue from Bridges at the end.
However, such flaws are perhaps not always that of the movie; this was the first depiction of a romantic relationship between a black man and woman in mainstream Hollywood, and was quite groundbreaking for its time. It was just four years after this movie that Poitier had a go at directing himself... you do wonder if this was more than a coincidence, as the TV Movie style framing here makes the direction of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner look like the work of Scorcese. Ultimately it's a film that hasn't aged well, and a poor follow-up to his three '67 vehicles... though it may not have been so at the time.
Paradise Alley (1978)
Someone needed to tell Sly "no"...
In a review of 1984's Rhinestone I claimed that it was roughly the point where Sylvester Stallone's career started to become derailed. Yet having watched Paradise Alley, I realise I was wrong.
It's astonishing just how rapidly the actorly ego and lack of people to tell him "no" emerged. Stallone's first two post-Rocky movies featured him in America's past. F.I.S.T (7/10) had him play a 1930s union man, backed by the superlative Rod Steiger and directed by the man behind In The Heat of the Night. Spending nearly two hours watching Stallone as a union rep is an odd choice right on the back of the commercial hit Rocky - kind of like following up Raging Bull with a pseudo-biopic of Arthur Scargill - but it's a decent film, generally well made.
Yet somehow that same year someone had convinced Stallone that not only could he direct, but he could also sing as well. Groaning the forgettable title tune, he delivers a childlike depiction of 1940s slum life in Paradise Alley, an overearnest tale that produces laughs only when none are intended. Both his 1978 films feature an arm wrestling match, nine years before he'd make an entire film around the sport in guilty pleasure Over The Top. But just take a look at the depictions of said arm wrestling matches in both '78 vehicles... Norman Jewison's is the one that's not making you cry with unintentional laughter.
Stallone isn't an awful director, but there's no reason why he should have discarded the original Rocky director for four of the sequels. (In fairness, when John G. Avildsen was brought back, then Rocky V was a famous misfire). But in just one month he moved from shooting a film under the watchful eye of the man behind The Thomas Crown Affair to shooting a movie under the watchful eye of the man behind Staying Alive and The Expendables.
The difference is hugely pronounced, as F.I.S.T has a relatively controlled and purposeful performance from Stallone, while Paradise Alley has him wholly believing he's being charming and likable (a la Balboa), instead of just obnoxious and tiresome. The character he plays in Paradise Alley is as likable a character as Stallone is good at singing. Ultimately the entire movie comes off as a vanity project, and far from a good one: the difference between the two films could not be more marked.
A Warm December (1973)
Stilted yet ultimately worthwhile
Logging on to the IMDb to rate this movie, I was surprised to find that I'd previously rated it some years ago, giving it a perhaps-harsh 4/10. That's the beauty of this later Poitier endeavour... it's so forgettable you can see it more than once and each time it's like the first.
That's not to say that the languid pace and TV movie direction by Poitier (far more effective in front of the camera than behind it, sadly) make this a film without merit. In its layered depiction of black people on the screen, Poitier's second England movie may not be the equal of the first, but has plenty of things to say... even if it does say those things in a relaxed, heavily reflective manner.
The real problem with the film is that as a love story with a tragic twist it's incredibly staid, almost sterile. Chemistry is not flowing from the screen here, even for the relatively passive time in which it was made. And such a stiff depiction of romance is only expounded by the presence of Yvette Curtis as Poitier's daughter. While okay at general lines, she's unable to emote, and scenes where she's supposedly concerned over whether Catherine lives or dies see her looking like she's wondering to have jam or just butter on her morning toast.
Six years before this Poitier was the biggest box office star in the world, having had three huge hits in 1967. After this it's directing and co-starring with Bill Cosby in three so-so comedies and appearing in a Michael Caine thriller, then acting retirement. Such a drastic change in his standing is remarkable.
Despite Poitier's much later return from retirement (and later, sad decline into TV movie actor... what a waste) A Warm December marks one of his final last gasps as a major force. As a Sidney Poitier work then it's probably not even in the top 15 of his films that you should make a point of seeing. But, if you've got an afternoon when you're not too busy, A Warm December will help to pass the time quite pleasantly... if not so memorably.