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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Hack writers destroy what might have been
Hugh Jackman has to be one of the most talented actors working today, and that just doubles my disappointment with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Not only have the producers pried $8 from my wallet by the premise of expanding our understanding of Wolverine, but they wasted Jackman in nonsense drivel that besmirches the Marvel Comics canon.
And for that, the responsibility rests solely with writers David Benioff and Skip Woods. This film should have been character driven, with slices of Wolverine's life subtly shaping the mutant he became. In fact, the advertising suggested this is the film's raison d'etre. Instead, what hit my theater was a series of action set pieces "loosely" (being generous) connected by neck snapping plot twists.
I got the feeling the writers sat down with a a six pack of Icehouse Beer and a bucket. In the bucket they tossed slips of paper with the ideas for scenes that would make a really cool trailer. And then they laid them out in a line and came up with ideas to connect them. I mean, memory erasing bullet? How else do you explain that?
2 writers with 5 movies between them, and except for Wood's "Hit-man" they all lost money. (Frankly, find Hit-man's estimated budget of $24M hard to believe). Who in Hollywood green-lighted a $130M for two guys that can't tell a story? Particularly grating was the Vietnam material because it plays like it had a 2001 transplant. They don't remember what that time was like and it shows.
The box office should fall off sharply as the public smells ripoff, too late for me.
Another great Paramount talkie!
Depression moviegoers got a 2-for-1 treat with this melodrama. A festive romance, complete with water skiing and dance parties highlight the first half. An effective and convincing set up for the 'manslaughter' to follow.
Claudete Colbert is mesmerizing as the unrepentant poor-little-rich-girl Lydia Thorne. She is too busy enjoying life's party to feel her conscience, bribing a cop rather than accept a speeding ticket. And when her maid is convicted of stealing her jewels, Lydia's bridge game is more important than a kind word to the judge. A word that would bring years of freedom to her maid's life.
Enter straight shooting District Attourney Dan O'Bannon (Frederic March). He's busy schmoozing political heavyweights with "equal justice for rich and poor" when he falls under Lydia's spell.
Miss Colbert literally sparkles in Archie Stout's photography. Principally backlit, her satin gown and diamond necklace shimmer in the star filter and complete the trap for O'Bannon and viewer alike. Lots of overhead and dolly shots keep the eye-candy coming. This beautifully mounted production gives no clue why Mr. Stout would be doing the cheapo John Wayne westerns 3 years later. Amazingly, Archie Stout would go onto shoot the sumptuously photographed Angel And The Badman for Wayne years later! An automobile accident (not a run over pedestrian as suggested above) triggers the second half of the film and the regeneration of our heroine, and not without delicious plot twists and turns.
Great performances and production make this a must see for the avid talkie buff. And Claudette Colbert fans will be well pleased to find her already in top gear.
Side Street (1929)
Flawed talkie showcases the three Moore brothers.
Though released at a time when all-talking pictures were the norm (Sept 1929), the recording and static camera technique mar an otherwise fascinating glimpse of the Moore brothers together.
Tom, Matt and Owen Moore play the three sons of Mr. and Mrs. O'Farrell, an oh-so-Irish couple living modestly in Manhattan. The O'Farrells express pride in their apparently successful sons as they prepare for a family get-together. This opening reel is an unmoving camera shot with ma and pa discussing each child and is rough going as Frank Sheridan (pa) and Emma Dunn (ma) speak with such thick brogue that the dialog is difficult to follow. This left my eyes wandering to the chandelier and the big black microphone clearly visible there. Placed far above the actors, the echoes it captured render many lines unintelligible.
As the sons arrive, the film's pace picks up. Jimmy (Tom Moore) is a uniformed cop, fresh to the force and following his father's policeman footsteps. John (Matt Moore) appears as ambulance surgeon, humble and soft-spoken. Last to show is the slick Dennis (Owen Moore), unknown to all as living a secret life as Mueller, the town's biggest gangster. The family scenes are good, and the picture improves consistently from this point on. I won't spoil a familiar plot, but Jimmy the cop makes detective and is assigned to investigate (brother) Mueller's gang. The Moore brother scenes are naturalistic and satisfying.
But, as the camera set-ups increase, so do the sound goofs. During one scene, you will hear things being moved around off-camera. Another unbilled performer is one of those big exhaust fans so prevalent before air conditioning. Clearly heard above the dialog, and with two scenes, it should have received a screen credit!
This is, however, the only chance to see Tom, Matt and Owen together on-screen, and that is worth the film's cinematic shortcomings. Tom and Matt would appear together in 1930's Costello Case and Woman Racket, but they would all fade into obscurity as the sound era took hold and brought fresh faces from Eastern theater stages. Tom, who would live until 1955, disappeared from the screen by 1938, and his talkie zenith is 1934's Return Of Chandu. Matt starred in 1933's Deluge, but would be more accessible in Rain (1932) as Dr. MacPhail. He ecked out a living in film as an uncredited character actor until his death in 1960. Most famous of the three was the hard-drinking Owen Moore. Owen married Mary Pickford secretly in 1911, their stormy marriage ending in 1920. Owen was slim, dark and didn't look like his other brothers. His casting as the gangster here is perfect, and his performance is very good. Owen is terrific in 1930's Outside The Law as Fingers O'Dell. It's a shame his life and career were cut short by drinking, he died in 1939.
Ironically, Owen's gangster-partner Silk Ruffo is played by Arthur Housman who made his career playing inebriated characters. And here his role is stone cold sober.
Enjoy this early talker from RKO which survives only in its 16mm TV distribution print.
Open Range (2003)
Kevin Costner returns to greatness.
Breathtaking, visionary, and sure to be copied. It's nothing like you've seen before. Now excuse me, I've GOT to emigrate to Canada: anyone adopting a single 50 year old sober hippie?
The Widow from Chicago (1930)
"The Widow" towers over Little Caesar
And I'll support that conclusion. However, I must preface my commentary by acceding to a predilection for Alice White's performances. I adore her no-apologies-for-pert, straight-ahead style that was the antithesis of 'real' actors who rolled their R's and eyes at every opportunity.
We are introduced to Polly (Alice White) and Jimmy (Harold Goodwin) as new tenants by the neighbors' gossiping. Are they married? The question remains unanswered until just before Jimmy, the precinct's newbie detective, leaves for work. The clever script puts a smile on your face just as Jimmy waves at his sister, Polly from the street, and becomes a drive-by shooting victim.
The scripts' powerful counterpoints and wit are enhanced by director Edward Cline's smart pacing and Sol Polito's brilliant photography. The avenging Polly, masquerades to mob boss Dominic (Edward G. Robinson) as the widow of a dead associate of the gang. But she becomes trapped in his office when the 'widow's husband returns from the dead. When Dominic goes out to meet him, we are left with a great insert of the edge of the office door. Slightly ajar, we watch it in anticipation while Dominic meets Polly's 'dead' husband. Will she make a break for it? Will Swifty confront her? Your mind races as the camera holds on that door. It's bravura filmmaking, and Cline keeps it coming. By the way, Polly embraces her 'husband' whispering "go along, I'm on the spot". The excitement's just beginning, Swifty is only too happy to go home with his 'wife'.
Neil Hamilton handles his role as Swifty Dorgan with effective menace, and Polly goes from being on the spot in Dominic's office to being in a spot behind her own (now locked) door. Frank McHugh's got a fine bit as one of Dominic's hentchmen 'Slug', and advises his fellow thug, Mullins, to give up the girl he can't get along with. Slug's smugness melts, however, when Mullins returns the girl's key only to discover the key is to Slug's girlfriend's apartment.
Earl Baldwin's script has plenty of sparks left, and Polito takes the shootout in the dark to a new level when a spotlight is introduced: not only being shot at, but everything its prowling eye touches gets killed. You'll wonder why Little Caesar is famous after seeing this terrific gangster film.
Mother and Son (1931)
Monogram meller with meaningful moments
An obvious cheapie hampered by one-take shots, this oft used mother-with-a-past melodrama is replete with satisfying set pieces.
The quality of performances keep viewer interest and account for my vote on the high side of 5. Clara Kimball Young, bravely baring her frumpish form in backless dresses, delivers an excellent job as Faro Lil, a gambler of mythical dimensions. Her sordid past threatens to poison her son's social climb, as she must resume that career thanks to the plunging stock market. As her son, Jeff, actor Bruce Warren does a fine job. Their first reunification scene has a fresh and personal quality to it, almost ad-libbed. And they'll close the picture memorably, in silent movie style.
The technical aspects of production are ambitious meets cheap. A rare example of the Balsley And Phillips sound system [I can find only 19 features credited], the soundtrack is clear and well modulated. The main set is the gambling hall: walls of rough-hewn planks fit the "old west" motif and the miniscule budget. A long dollying shot to establish the club's setting dips and wobbles so much the viewer might want to keep the Dramamine handy. Typical to Monogram (Trem Carr), a sequence will be done in one shot, with quick pans to a door as characters enter, then quick pans back so the film edits more quickly. There is one shot of Ms. Young that is splendidly lit, and for a moment you see she's still very beautiful. However, it only serves to damn the rest of the lighting schemes which are too contrasty. In a crucial gambling scene, the shot deliberately obscures the mechanics of the game, ruining a well acted climax.
I wish this studio had put a little more care into its films. There are fine moments tucked between takes that should have been reshot. For talkie buffs, only.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
Brilliant, heart-wrenching depression gem
Forget the Kleenex, bring the Bounty paper towels to experience William Wellman's depression masterpiece. This huge emotional epiphany packs a wallop.
Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips portray the juvenile leads Eddie and Tommy, with Darro's performance effective and appealing. Their characters indulge in the usual teenage shenanigans until the depression overtakes their parents. As times toughen, and Eddie's father can't find work, Eddie decides to sell his jalopy to help out. This sets up the first of many splendid scenes, as Eddie's tough-guy veneer drops just long enough to share raw emotions with his father (Grant Mitchell). Zero cringe factor here, Wellman excels at emotions between men and it's never maudlin.
Hitting the (rail)road to find work, Eddie and Tommy encounter Sally, an adorable, nose-scrintching Dorothy Coonan dressed as a man. And the three set off across the country, with high ideals and optimism clashing with depression realities. Brutal and raw, this is a journey you, too, must take. A page of America's history told so expertly as to make you laugh and cry simultaneously.
Ms. Coonan (Sally) quit films after "Wild Boys" to marry director "Wild" Bill Wellman, and remain his his wife until his death in 1975. My highest recommendation.
The Son-Daughter (1932)
A world both delicate and deadly
In the Chinatown of 1911 in San Francisco, the specter of political upheaval casts a shadow over two lovers.
Helen Hayes and Ramon Navarro play Lien Wha and Tom Lee, whose ever-so-polite courtship advances haltingly under the watchful eyes of Lien's father, Dr. Tong (Lewis Stone, perfectly underplaying his role). In a world of wind chimes, flowers and birds singing, Lien Wha inhabits a world very different from the street below. Furtive shadows hide blade wielding hatchet men routinely "dispatching" self-described patriots disloyal to the repressive Chinese Emperor. It is to these patriots that Dr. Tong places his loyalty, and a $100,000 tribute for smugglers becomes crucial to save the repressed homelanders. Tong reveals to his daughter his unfulfilled wish to have had a son to send to fight for his people, and Lien pledges herself to be the son he lacks, she'll be his son-daughter.
Director Clarence Brown unfolds his drama in settings that are among MGM's best. Using complex lighting arrangements and crane shots, the director injects dread most effectively. The violence is quick and strong, definately pre-code. And if you're familiar with the portrayal of Chinese in America up to the sixties, you will forgive performances which play today as over the top. Indeed, during the final reel, you'll discover why Hayes was a great choice for the lead.
A great film for adults, and a must-see for students of great photography.
The Dance of Life (1929)
Still entertains and delights!
Here's one of the early talkies that has been readily available to home video, but one I've avoided. An early musical, and yet another "backstage" plotline, this was something I've seen done so poorly elsewhere I suspected I'd wind up throwing things at my TV. [Have any of you anguished your way through the musical numbers of The Great Gabbo?] Happily, such was not the case. Here is a film totally accessible to contemporary audiences.
A big film in its time, Paramount popped for Technicolor and assigned it's two top directors, Cromwell and Sutherland. [The directors appear in cameos as doorman and theatre attendant, respectively.] Musical sequences are well done and entertain. Cringe factor on a one to five scale, one. The wonder of seeing the tall, lanky Skelly and diminutive Carroll dancing in perfect unison is still with me. They're the most unlikely team this side of Laurel and Hardy.
Many other splendid differences between this film and its contemporaries are worth noting. Released August, 1929, Paramount's superimposed credits seem so much more modern than the silent card graphics MGM still used. Not everyone cares to know who the associated producer is, we want entertained. Behind The Dance Of Life, silhouetted stage hands scurry about, pulling backdrops and riggings. You're treated to seeing behind the scenes while the obligatory texts play out. The ensemble cast has antagonists which prove to be red herrings. It's loaded with interesting camera compositions. A train is gained and quit at night in a pouring rainstorm. A sandwich is used as a romantic device. And what I enjoyed the most was the personal and up close feeling the directors give scenes. Skelly, after pratfalling from wing to wing, sings "True Blue Lou" so personally it would seem he was oblivious to the camera which closed in three times during the song.
A snapshot of a lost form of American entertainment, The Dance Of Life stands apart from its roots as a great film. See it!
Anybody's Woman (1930)
Outstanding! Don't miss a single frame!
I recently denigrated Ruth Chatterton's performance in another film and became beset with the malaise that attends the negative mindset. Asked myself, "how could I be so hardened?" I set about researching her films I was familiar with. Happily, I started with "Anybody's Woman." As the film began, [and I HAD to watch the whole thing , again] it was clear that this was the performance by which I had judged all of Chatterton's. Indeed, it is the standard to which I hold Paul Lukas and Clive Brook.
While the plot of a society gentleman-marries-chorus-girl-on-bender has been done ad nauseum, this film achieves complete veracity. Ruth Chatterton's Pansy Grey is a natural, decent sort, who recognizes her own faults and refuses to let them drag her down. She is loyal to the point of self-sacrifice and tough when she needs to be. Chatterton displays acting talents from A to Z, from soft spoken to shouting, and so effective that volumes are spoken when she just leans her head against Clive Brook's chest. Brook benefits from superb lines, and he'll deliver some with uncommon fire. Paul Lukas, here, is cast in an outgoing and straightforward part which showcases him better than anywhere else.
All three vertices of this romantic triangle play a taut script right to the hilt. The intense sincerity these three bring to their roles makes every scene memorable. Structurally, the film is deliberately broken into stand alone blocks of time, each labeled silent movie style: "A Month Later", "The Next Day" and so on. Elsewhere, this device is used as a crutch, here, you are allowed to savor what you've just experienced. It is as though the film makers are saying, "if you thought that was good, watch this!"
I'm sure much credit must go to the director, Dorothy Arzner. Close ups are judiciously used and there is a natural quality pervading each set piece. She's blocked her actors and composed camera frame according to the relationship of the onscreen principles. Early in the film, Brook's and Chatterton's heads are in opposite corners of the frame. Later, during a confrontation, the three leads are almost huddled, lost in the room. While this could play onstage, only cinema can manipulate the viewer in this fashion.
Please, please Paramount, take a look at this picture and release it to home video. There is gold in your vaults.