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Great Guy (1936)
Cagney Goes Bureaucrat, 28 March 2017

Unusual Cagney entry. He's promoted to head of city Weights and Measures after the former head is roughed up by corrupt city government. Now I've seen a ton of old movies, but this is the first to deal W and M. Still, there's a lot of material for a crime movie. After all, that bureau is supposed to make sure consumers get what they pay for. The movie's first part deals with the various scams retailers could use then (1930's) to cheat customers. Cagney's Johnny Cave proves a zealously honest enforcer, bringing him into conflict with the mayor and other higher-ups. Their points of conflict form most of the narrative.

At this point in his career, Cagney had left Warner Bros. to free lance. In terms of prestige, the production outfit (Zion Meyers) appears a come-down for the actor. But you'd never know it. He's a one-man show, happily supported by a colorful cast of mugs and icy politicos. Plus, Mae (grapefruit in the face) Clarke teams up again, this time as an eye-catching brunette. Then too, I like the interspersed colorful touches, like the fat guy in the cafeteria line who keeps hi-jacking Cave's food. Or Cave's digs at Janet's (Clarke) lumpy hat. Watch quickly for handsome leading-man-to-be Robert Lowery as one of the ballroom dancers. My only gripe is the fist-fight that's both exaggerated and unnecessary to the plot. I suspect that was to work in a big action scene.

All in all, it's a lesser known Cagney feature from the 30's. But the tough guy's still in fine Cagney form. At the same time, the script's concern with consumer protection from scheming merchants and politicos seems almost contemporary. Technology may have changed, but some things don't.

Don't Take My Picture, 27 March 2017

Three small-time crooks stumble upon a magical camera whose pictures foreshadow the future. Snap the shutter and the photo will show the next event to happen in that same spot. So how will these low-enders exploit their windfall.

What a marvelous cast trio. Despite the ending, there's a light comedic touch throughout, thanks mainly to dumb blonde Paula (Carson). The actress was so good at these type roles. And mustn't forget everybody's favorite curmudgeon, baldy Fred Clark, or utility actor Williams whose character is even dumber than Paula. Together, they're instant chemistry.

But please tell me where I can buy that prophetic camera the trio uses to bankrupt the racetrack. I've got big plans for it. And check out Carson's low-cut top. I expect they were pushing to a limit the dress code of the day. Also, judging from the way the camera develops its own pictures, I guess this was back in the old Polaroid days. Anyway, it's an amusingly interesting 30-minutes, though I could have done with a more imaginative ending from the one that seems a little extreme for what's gone before.

Bulworth (1998)
Shrewd Message Movie, 26 March 2017

The movie may look goofy, but it's not. Note how the rule of big money behind our democratic façade is exposed. It could have been done in bits and pieces and through corruptive behavior, but that would have made the message less focused. Of course, simply declaiming the political message would have sounded preachy.

Instead, Bulworth does a wacky in-your-face by delivering the message in unmistakable, yet entertaining fashion. That's done by having the senator succumb to an alter ego brought on by mental exhaustion over his planned suicide. Serious messages are then wrapped in comedic contrasts. No more suit and tie for the new Bulworth. Instead, he looks like he went shopping in the dark at a charity ward. In fact, the now truth-telling hipster appears his real self suddenly breaking through the conventional façade. At the same time, watching him defy deadening media clichés amounts to a jarring hoot. And after romantic pursuit of an eye-catching Black woman (Berry), he learns day-to-day facts of ghetto plight by staying with her family. And when not speaking truth to power at White fund-raisers, Beatty's Bulworth uses his newly acquired hip-hop to rhyme out the message in catchy rapper fashion. Either way, it's one of the cleverest approaches to undercutting deadening political authority that I've seen.

No pretty-boy Beatty here. Pushing 60, he's haggard looking throughout, doing little to compensate until the end. Of course, that's the way it should be, given the emphasis on message. I suspect it's a movie the lefty actor-director-producer has long wanted to make. And make it he did, in spades.

Interesting but Talky, 25 March 2017

Like this installment or not, it is a Wiseman showcase. As an addled millionaire, he gets to run a gamut of emotions replete with stark close-ups. Good thing the acting is strong since the talky story depends more on character than suspense. Seems Wiseman's millionaire can't get over humiliations of his earlier life, whether he deserved those reprimands or not. So now, he's constructed an elaborate scheme to humiliate three of those perpetrators, which he locks into an underground bomb shelter with himself. There, he confronts the three with making a radical choice among their personal values. The three are a quiet clergyman (ClarK), a no-nonsense Teacher (Squire), and a commanding colonel (Bardette). So, what values will these three pillars of society sacrifice in return for simple self-preservation.

Though the premise contains seeds of suspense, these are not played up. Rather the storyline develops with character interest climaxing in a double dose of TZ irony. Also, I get the impression Serling may be making a comment on society by using the four professions as symbols for something larger. In my little book, the 30-minutes amounts to a middling series entry, more a matter of taste than most.

Ralph, The Speech Maker, 24 March 2017

Lesson #1—Never play ping-pong with Norton. He's a shark. Too bad Ralph has yet to learn the lesson and it's cost him a whole dime. Meanwhile, the goofy Raccoon Lodge guys have to make a big decision—Should they take the wives on their big annual fishing trip. Naturally, Ralph makes a big brave speech for leaving them home. After all, are the guys macho men or not. So now he has to work up the nerve to tell Alice, especially after she's bought a fetching new fishing outfit. And what about Norton telling Trixie, especially after Ralph hears a big thump from upstairs. But can the boys go back on their word to the lodge brothers. No doubt about it, they're in a bind. Overall, It's Gleason's great combo of hard bluster and soft heart, with laughs aplenty.

Be Nice To Norton, 23 March 2017

Extravagant Ralph buys a cheap vacuum. Now if only he can get his nose unstuck from the sucking hose. And it would help if they had anything to use it on, like a carpet or upholstery. This first part is pretty funny as Ralph won't admit he made a mistake.

The second part is not so amusing. Ralph dearly wants to be elected Convention Chairman of the goofy Raccoon Lodge. That way, he can act like a big wheel in Chicago. But he needs Ed's vote to be elected. Too bad he sent Ed away forever because of the silly vacuum. So now, he's kissing up to Ed, but so is his rival in the election. Ralph's desperate since an alienated Norton holds all the cards. Surprisingly, it's the vacuum that holds the key.

All in all, an okay episode with less of Alice than usual.

Choppy Short Version, 22 March 2017

I'm leery of drawing hard and fast conclusions since I too saw the shortened 45-minute version. The editing appears choppy, especially the last, reveal section. That, plus a fuzzy sound quality didn't help. Anyway, from what I saw, the programmer's a fairly standard dark and stormy night, except no one gets murdered. Instead, it's a stolen gem that breeds the mystery.

Oddly, what I took away from the proceedings was not the plot nor the slam-bang thunder, but two of the greatest faces of the time—von Seyferttitz and Dudgeon. I wanted a scene where they could go nose to nose; that is, if the set were big enough to handle their majestic blades. In fact, to me, vS has an appearance that should have pushed him up the Hollywood ladder of intellectual villains. Then too, I'm surprised John Davidson's exotic Hindu didn't get more time. But his may have been a casualty of the shortened version.

At the same time, I should note the nicely fluid camera work that seems unusual for early talkies still struggling with sound. All in all, from what I saw, it's an interesting, if uneven, time-passer.

Maisie Goes Dramatic, 21 March 2017

Since it's a Maisie, I was expecting more of a comedy. But the laughs, such as they are, are secondary to a rather dramatic plot. Due to a series of mishaps, our girl ends up in a medical research station in darkest Africa. There she mingles with a strapping fellow refugee (Carroll), along with the current research doctor (Strudwick) and his classy wife (Johnson). In the background lurks a restive native tribe and their jealous witch doctors. Naturally, emotions wander while the natives grow more restless.

Sothern's brassy persona remains intact but with many more dramatic moments than usual for the series. And that's despite a really clever opening. Looks to me like the studio was still unsure of the series direction. Not so with the handsome Carroll, who's clearly a Clark Gable hopeful in both voice and manner, and getting a lot of screen time, to boot. Fortunately, Maisie gets some snappy lines, along with the movie's highlight where she out-performs the witch doctors with a magic act. And catch her slinky outfit that's a real eye-catcher. Too bad for Rita Johnson's rather dour and dowdy role as the neglected wife.

All in all, it's a well-mounted B-picture whose sets and effects reflect MGM's concern with quality. Nevertheless, the 71-minutes largely fails to show off Maisie's street-wise comedic appeal to best effect. The series would soon find a surer footing for that appeal.

Serling Mounts The Pulpit, 20 March 2017

An inexplicable cloak of night refuses to lift on residents of a small town riven by hatred, while a condemned man awaits execution.

Though well acted, this entry could be the half-hour series' low point. Condemning hate is easy to do, but especially so when done in preachy fashion, as here. Then too, the facile approach connects condemnation with popular political villains of the time as though God is punishing the innocents of those countries and areas too-- Dallas (Kennedy), Berlin, Vietnam, are among those mentioned . Civil rights movements were much in the news at the time (1964) and clearly affect the narrative here. And though the entry's heart is in the right place, TZ's strengths did not lie in political preachments. Thank goodness this headline chaser does not typify that great sci-fi series.

Brubaker (1980)
A Little Depth On A Grimly Revealing Movie, 19 March 2017

The film's based on an expose of actual occurrences at Arkansas' Cummins State Prison Farm, especially the secret convict burial ground found there.

One thing for sure—this is not a date movie. Instead, it's a grim 2-hours redeemed by taking on a difficult topic, namely how some state prisons are run. Admittedly, the movie's lengthy, humorless, and undeviating in its narrative. But the 140-minutes is also richly detailed in its overall expose. Based on a true story, Redford plays a determined prison reformer who first impersonates an inmate in order to experience actual conditions at a prison farm. Then he assumes his official duties in casual dress, while continuing to mix with the convicts. Definitely, no romance here for movie star Redford.

To say conditions at the penitentiary are corrupt understates them. The movie's quite good at showing how petty pay-offs decide who gets what among the inmates themselves, and then how the surrounding business community benefits from both inmate labor and the crops they produce. That's not to leave out state government and its slick go-betweens that tolerate the system since it does produce a profit.

Determined to humanize brutal prison conditions, Redford takes a hands-on approach by daily eating and mingling with the convicts. Apparently, the higher-ups remain confident he'll be co-opted by the system at some point, just as previous reformers apparently were. However, they've underestimated his dedication, as even his politically liberal connection to the state governor, Lillian (Jane Alexander), finds out. Their low-key showdown is really the movie's most telling point. For it's the principled Redford's refusal to settle for a few changes that separates him from the more pragmatic Lillian. After all, only a few changes will leave the basically corrupt system in place.

Redford understates his role in a generally emotionless way. And though he's in about every scene, he draws no attention to himself. Instead, as the pivotal convict Coombes, a commanding Yaphet Kotto gets the dramatic play. And in a touch of expert casting, the sly Murray Hamilton appears as a slippery politician who's used to smilingly fix things at the state level. The film's one false note occurs at the end,which is obviously staged. I can understand wanting to end on a hopeful note, but the uniform crowd response overdoes it. After all, wouldn't a few "realists" hang back in the interest of identifying with the new regime since that's where the future lies.

Sad to say, I think the movie's also a reflection of too much of our current state of national affairs. On that national level, slick politicians maintain a system where the wealthy 1% rake off profits from a debt-ridden working class, kept in place by a growing government surveillance network. At the same time, our infrastructure crumbles like the prison roof in the movie. Of course, I'm not saying the country amounts to a prison, at least as long as the Constitution has some effect. But I am saying there are more parallels with Redford's movie than I'm comfortable with. Agree or not, the film is well worth pausing over.

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