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Striking Visual Style in Elemental Black and White Fits Elemental Lifestyles
This documentary-style, relatively short feature film is poignant, stunning in it's simplicity and rich in its humane impulses; it features actual workers in an almost impossibly hostile semi-desert bordering on the ocean that has served as a salt mine for over 450 years; the huge pyramids of salt are impressive, but even more so are the men who climb them with 140 pound baskets of salt, dumping them on top and receiving a few coins in their palms each time--and the women at the base of the pyramids who bag and tie the salt in hideously hot and dry climate.
While this group produces much of the money for the locals in their adobe villages, another group produces the food, venturing out in a large boat every morning hopefully to return with nets full of fish, as they have for hundreds of years. There is a strong sense of community that binds these people, and filmmaker Margot Benacerraf, instead of having anyone employ dialogue, follows her subjects with mostly poetic narration and a strong musical soundtrack.
There is actually a conclusion, and how the viewer reacts to it will certainly reflect attitudes toward modernization and the erasure of ancient traditions; this is a remarkably visual film, stunning to look at, whether from the top of a salt pyramid or bending down to a simple grave decorated with seashells in lieu of the flowers which cannot grow in this part of Venezuela. This is a valuable film document of a disappeared occupation; be sure to watch the "extra" which, fifty years later, follows up on some of the original workers.
Private Detective 62 (1933)
William Powell Shines in Zippy Light-Hearted Intrigue
Long before he directed Casablanca, Mildred Pierce and The Adventures of Robin Hood (among other brilliant films) Michael Curtiz took a hand in putting together this little Depression gem about shady detective work, women with money to spare, and a budding romance. The always puckishly sophisticated William Powell appears to have a great deal of fun playing what appears to be a shady detectivebut one with an integrity and a great charm for women.
In this zippy little pre-code gem, Powell is hired to put a wealthy female gambler in jeopardy so that her considerable winnings can be taken back by the speakeasy where she gambles; can you guess what happens when the two meet? The woman is played by the engagingly attractive but underused Margaret Lindsay, and she's an apt foil for Powell's machinations (Lindsay has never looked better than she does in this film, and one wonders why she never moved into more major films).
This is another Warner Brother's quickie, a highly entertaining, fast-moving (67 minutes!) "B" film loaded with familiar character actors like Hobart Cavanaugh and Irving Bacon and even Toby Wing, whose wide-smile and sexy persona impresses immediately in a five second appearance as one of Powell's willing conquests. There's even a pre-code drug addict named "Whitey" referred to as a "hophead" into "snow," the sort of drug reference which, as a result of the new code, would completely disappear from films for twenty years after 1934; drugs didn't make a major appearance again until Sinatra's Oscar-nominated performance in The Man With The Golden Arm in 1956.
This is not a great film by any means, but a perfect Saturday matinée popcorn movie, an excellent example of a studio film that was no longer made after 1950.
This Woman Is Dangerous (1952)
It's Ted McCords Movie...
The woman in the title is not particularly dangerous, but she seems to be crashingly masochistic. Joan Crawford, at this point in her acting career, has been playing women with an elegant sense style who fall for the wrong men, and this time it's super-petulant David Brian, who has probably been pouting since his older sister snapped his slingshot. Early in the film, Our Joan discovers her sight is in jeopardy, and purely by accident begins to bond with her doctor, mild-mannered but sensitive Dennis Morgan, set free from Warner's musicals for a year or so; Brian soon discovers the clandestine romance, and is ready to kill someone! He loves to wave his gun around!
Although not as tightly written as this semi-noir melodrama could be, there are plenty of exciting set pieces that delight the eye and excite the intellect--all the stuff with the trailer pursued by the motorcycle copy is, while totally illogical, fascinating and beautifully filmed, and therein for me lies a major interest in this film--the superb, careful use of the camera with which Warner films could be so effective--brilliant set interiors lit perfectly, whether in the home of a sick child's poor parents, or in an operating room's audience gallery, providing a dazzling set piece finale where everybody get's involved and there's enough shattered glass to build an igloo! Cinematographer Ted McCord is the man behind the camera; he's already lensed Crawford in numerous other films, and is responsible for a rich heritage of classics from The Treasure of The Sierra Madre to The Sound of Music--a dedicated artists, McCord's work could make a meatball look like filet mignon.
A sincere dedication from dozens of Warner contract players contribute to a wide variety of locales--from hospital waiting rooms to trailer parks, prison laundry rooms to doctor's offices, and the film, I think, accurately reflects the ability of a major studio to churn out a decent film every few weeks worthy of watching. This Woman Is Dangerous is no Mildred Pierce or Humoresque, but Joan is still in top form, manages to command attention, and there are few that can suffer as bravely. Well...Kay Francis, maybe..but that's another story.....
A Crawford Classic It Ain't...
This is essentially a soap opera in so many ways, and the money spent (or lack of it) on location settings or interiors appears to be minimal. Crawford plays Della, a grand, nervous, demanding, slightly off-kilter grande dame who hides in isolation with her strange daughter high above the city's noise and hustle. A hot-shot lawyer operating for an outside corporation wants to purchase a huge chunk of Crawford's property--but she's not budging! Nobody pushes Joan around!
What plot follows is not half as mesmerizing as the period automobiles in glittering pastels or the various fashion statements that Crawford parades as if she had been born to them (one may notice, however, that almost all of her close-ups shift to a very soft focus--no need to adjust your television). Della has lived in this lavishly furnished mansion for decades, but if one looks closely at the garish flower arrangements, the truly tatty color combinations in the carpets and curtains and the weird accent colors chosen by some set decorator in a very big hurry with a very small choice, the corners cut are clear. The same goes for the tacky statues plopped down around the pool, particularly the one dubbed "The Sun God," looking like something from an old Tarzan movie that keeps ending up with flowers stuffed in its mouth for no apparent reason.
But reason isn't what this frenetic melodrama is all about--as you can tell from this review, half the fun of it is enjoying the trappings of a late period Tinseltown Product, a sprinkling of several fine character actors--Charles Bickford and Richard Carlson (looking utterly exhausted!) and the always commanding Joan , rising above the situation just as she did in Mildred Pierce, Flamingo Road or the almost perfect Humoresque . By this time, however, the studios were largely finished, had sold of most of their lavish inventory, and only cared about what money might be made from television. This is primarily a curiosity, and one must bring a good deal of suspended disbelief to the party to enjoy it.
Pagan Love Song (1950)
Escape To Paradise With Esther And Her Friends
What a fascinating historical document, a dazzling Technicolor window into the hearts and desires of the American public, or at least what MGM was marketing to them in 1950! As long as today's viewer isn't expecting to see a gripping love story or the conflict that might occur when two radically different cultures attempt to meld, as long as plot or logic or suspense don't matter much, this musical document is amazingly entertaining! And perhaps it's entertainment value evolves from secondary values such as color and location and decent singing. It's not Mutiny On The Bounty!
I expect no one ever has watched an Esther Williams film for the intellectual challenge or for cutting edge plot development: first and foremost, we want to see Esther swim, to gloriously navigate the MGM waters as no one else has managed--in over a dozen films, this Million Dollar Mermaid dallied with her suitors, wore bathing suits perfectly, and ultimately proved who was boss in the romantic department, just as she does in this escapist delight. When Howard Keel sails into Tahiti (at the time there were no viable airfields accessible on Tahiti so the studio settled for Hawaii, and it's ravishing!), he mistakes Esther for a native swimmer, treats her with condescension and Esther goes along with the joke until she can turn the tables on him.
In the meantime, Howard learns how to live more gregariously with the local natives, a happy lot who seldom challenge his ways, and who are always happy to run off to a luau or a beach party when there's coconut to be husked. There are a couple of lavish MGM showpieces here, one of them a staged cellophaned hula extravaganza featuring dazzling hula action and a performer who utilizes his body as a percussion instrument: it's a frenzied five minutes!! And wait until you see the mind- boggling Dali-esque underwater fantasy ballet, a trip through a bright coral wonderland peppered with golden flashes from the local fishies!
Had Stanley Donen, director of such gems as Singin' In The Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, been allowed to direct, this might have been one of Esther's best--but she had suffered under his indifferent attitude toward her talents on Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and she refused to work with him, so the studio provided Robert Alton. Fortunately, we are spared Red Skelton or the other usual guest appearances which hamper the pace, and we are gifted with actual lush photography from the island of what appears to be Kauai for a 50's time warp, a zippy escape from any kind of reality.
Bank Holiday (1938)
Apples and Oranges and An Unexpected Narrative Delight
I try not to compare apples and oranges, but occasionally am driven to it. Last night I watched Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island, an overlong cinematic puzzle jammed with references, a jumbled encyclopedia drawn up from it's director's lifelong adoration of the movies, a film that doubles back upon itself, a film at odds with it's comic asides and serious overtones (i.e. Nazi Death Camps). I found much of it admirable, more of it a chore to experience.
Three On A Weekend, also known as Bank Holiday is a remarkable document to come out of an England preparing for war with Germany in the not too distant future, an early lark from master director Carol Reed (The Third Man), a film that begins in a hospital with a melodramatic event, then churned into the lives of several groups of people who are jammed into holiday trains ending up at the seaside.
I found the one film so sincere in intent, so clear in execution, and felt with such fondness for the peculiarities of the human condition, that after a long, long night of immersion in the twisted labyrinth of Shutter Island and into the frenzied mind of Leonardo DiCaprio as he copes with his own sanity, that this simple trip to the beach (in black and white) and dealing with the romantic and social dilemmas faced by the average man was an entertaining relief; it was so clear that there would be changes, and not all of them simple- minded.
And that, I suppose is my point. Occasionally I weary of repeatedly bludgeoned with gore, visually assaulted with violent behavior, and mystified by unclear motivations; such an approach may be modern, but now and then I miss the spell of simple entertainment in a story of people I can care about. That's what Three On A Weekend delivered in spades, and that's why I recommended it.
Dubbed Delon Is Better Than No Delon: Moody Romantic Thriller
This film just shows up every now and then on Turner Classic Movies in a dubbed version: it's a surprisingly moving film from the 1960s, a period in which cultural values were undergoing major changes. The hero, played by a dazzlingly handsome and charismatic Alain Delon, is a Foreign Legion deserter and has decided, after his quick escape, that amid all the political drum beating in France and Algeria at the time, all he wants to do is return quietly home and tend his bees and see a daughter left behind. He wants no more of shooting. Little does he know.
Delon must find enough francs to smuggle himself across the waters to France, and in selling his services gets caught up in a chase situation with a woman hostage, and by this time the willing viewer will be caught up as well--the cinematography is compelling, the music score unobtrusive but appropriate, and actors backing up the central performance all give memorable performances that often cross paths in one way or another.
Usually I run screaming from the screen when a film is dubbed from French or Italian into English, all the gestures and voice qualities out of whack with the original film or actor. This one, however, works well, and I found within ten minutes I was lost in the chase; the only complaint I had was in the nature of the ending, and there is no place in an informative review to discuss it here. See for yourself--if you can find it.
La scorta (1993)
Cheap Thrills Not The Point of This Suspense Expose
This tidy Italian film appears to be an honest snapshot into the corruption some people must deal with on a daily basis; although the plot centers around an outside judge who is supposed to uncover corruption, the view becomes fascinated with the daily lives of those who protect him, the trusted ones whose lives are put on the line every time they walk outside to get into a car, when they drive down city streets, when the shield the man they are there to protect.
Each of these "escorts" (hence the title "Scorta") is given a distinct personality, and we come to care for them, particularly a contrasting pair, one an angry loner with a dark agenda of his own, and one a family man trying to make a name for himself in law enforcement. We come to care for these two more than we care to watch another bloodletting, the possibility of which lurks around almost every frame of the film: corruption runs rampant, and thus this is not a simple film about the good cop triumphant over the bad gangster.
Some people complain regarding the ending, as it appears not to be nice and tidy, the viewer left with the satisfaction that two hours spent watching can leave them feeling happy. I would suggest that the film gains power by creating a vacuum where each of us is led by the writer and director of this film to make us deal with a little reality. Judge for yourself! It's a worthwhile film with a penetrating score by Ennio Morricone.
So This Is Paris (1955)
Romp With Navy Boys in Make-Believe Paris
Yes, this is a sort of second string On The Town (without navy whites) and no, Tony Curtis wasn't primarily and song and dance man. But early in his career at Universal, he was up for all kinds of roles from boxing noir (Flesh and Fury) to yeoman grade costume adventures (Black Shield of Falworth). Tony brought a fresh, free-spirited likability to just about every genre, and this light-hearted musical about three sailors on leave in Paris is no exception; he sings well, he dances with abandon, and he ingratiates the charm with a beginner's ease.
Co-star Gene Nelson was an expert dancer with years of experience, and gets several opportunities to charm the audience (and the girl) and Paul Gilbert saves the day during a final revue staged for a War Orphan benefit. Gloria De Haven, largely forgotten today, evokes a natural performance as a singer/dancer transplanted to postwar Paris, and Corinne Calvet and Mara Corday fill in the girlfriend gaps with looks and ease. All this in Glorious Technicolor and a well-paced 90 minutes makes a perfect popcorn movie for a Saturday afternoon.
As a side note: we often think as MGM and Fox as the primary purveyors of musicals, perhaps because the product has made itself readily available on DVD and TCM for so long, and certainly because MGM practically owned the genre at it's best. The disappointment is that this film, like so many from Universal, is not available to the general public, and never shows up on television (not unlike the boxing noir Flesh and Fury, with Tony and Jan Sterling). As so many companies like Turner and now Columbia are opening their archives for DVDS pressings, let's hope we soon get an opportunity to see these light-hearted treasures!
Kongen av Bastøy (2010)
Intense, Well-Made Character-Driven Prison Thriller
In the U.S., Alcatraz used to serve as a prison known to the inmates as "The Rock," a place where criminals were sent in a boat, the island from which few had ever been known to escape. In Norway, until 1957, criminal children, even those committing relatively minor crimes were sent to an Island Prison on the island of Batsoy, another dismal isolation from which there was supposedly no escape. "The King of Devil's Island" as another young man arrives after committing a murder, consigned to the prison's special diet of silence and discipline, work amid dismally spartan conditions. The new inmate, after the usual give and take with more dominant prisoners, most of them young teens, manages to find himself a friend, sharing his plan to be the first to attempt a getaway.
Animosity between the inmates and those in charge, one of them an unregenerate pedophile and another taking money that should go to the welfare of the prisoners, develops quickly, and a steady intensity is constantly building--not with the buckets of profanity that pepper an American prison film, but a series of darker, psychological twists evolving from our knowledge of many of the young men involved.
Although in color, the atmosphere is dark, the skies seldom blue, the woods dark, the walks snowy: it is a moody film, but never lets the tension loosen much. I found it gripping and intense, building to a smashing final scene: not necessarily conclusive, but totally satisfying. The acting is universally excellent, the underlying music score appropriate without being intrusive. This well-made film was fully worthy of my time.