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A live-action adaptation held afloat by Alfred Molina's stylized portrayal of dastardly Snidely Whiplash (and held together by the trusty narrator!)
2 August 2018
Whenever a cartoon is adapted to a live-action feature film, certain (often misguided) decisions are made, usually about fleshing out the characters' backstories or bringing their antics to life in "the real world". With DUDLEY DO-RIGHT (1999), the questionable choice has been made to make Dudley, Snidely, and Nell childhood buddies who've grown into their adult roles as the hero, the villain, and the damsel, respectively. The awkward prologue sets up the main characters so that the movie can get the ball rolling right after the animated opening credits.

Originally appearing as self-contained backup segments within episodes of Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, "Dudley Do-Right" and its characters have their roots in the serialized melodramas of early silent films. The cartoons are steeped in such iconography as the mustache-twirling villain tying the damsel to the railroad tracks (or a sawmill, etc.), the jaunty piano accompaniment, and the irising camera and old-timey title cards that introduce each character. Dudley is a spoof of the brave and pure hero: a well-meaning and idealistic buffoon, who somehow (often in spite of himself) brings the bad guys to justice.

Brendan Fraser plays Dudley as a slapstick dimwit who is as much a victim of his environment (for example, stepping on loose floor boards in his cabin) as he is of his own naïveté. He's a rather bland hero, rigidly devoted to his sense of right and wrong and hopelessly idealistic (not so much a ridiculous caricature as his cartoon counterpart). This builds a sense of sympathy for the poor guy, which was never really part of the cartoon iteration. Likewise, Nell (Sarah Jessica Parker) is fleshed out as a comically well-educated Yale and Harvard graduate (and former U.S. Ambassador to Guam), and not just a fickle frontier maiden who toys with Dudley's heart. Alfred Molina seems to have fun with his role as the dastardly Snidely Whiplash, playing it as cartoony as he can, and it works. (The character of Horse, the horse, doesn't add much and is largely absent from the film.)

The action is propelled by the wonderful, pseudo-serious narration (by Corey Burton, in the style of Paul Frees), which takes a page right from the original cartoons. But the film makes the odd choice of setting the action in the modern day (since the cartoon from the 1960s was very specifically spoofing old-timey silent movies and a late-19th-Century setting). It's just a little odd to see Dudley standing next to a modern SUV, or to have the mustachioed Snidely watching cable news. The mix of antiquated iconography and contemporary trappings is bizarre, but I suppose that's part of the film's charm. (At least we don't get a completely modernized take on the characters.)

The plot has the sinister Snidely Whiplash incite a false gold rush on his own Canadian land, bringing waves of Americans (and their wallets) over the border. Dudley faces a crisis of conscience when it's pointed out that Snidely's "wrong-doing" is actually good for the Canadian economy, and that sometimes in order to stop the "bad guy", a "good guy" has to be a little bad. (The scenes where Dudley is a "dangerous", motorcycle-riding, vigilante "bad boy" offer an interesting role-reversal with his nemesis Snidely, but stretch the character a little too far from his fumbling Mountie image.)

Despite the criticisms, DUDLEY DO-RIGHT is fun because it embraces its cartoon roots. The film is very stylized, from the portrayals of the characters to the voice-over narration to the occasional fourth wall breaks to the veins of absurdity that run through the whole thing (Snidely's merchandising empire, the faux-Native American theatrical performances, Eric Idle's prospector bum-turned-wise mentor). Although the story was transported to the modern world, the filmmakers didn't tamper too much with the spirit of the source material. The narration is on-point, Snidely's goons have some funny lines, and Molina's colorful portrayal of the villain (with his alternate outfits for playing mini-golf and leading a battalion to war) makes the film worthwhile.

When I saw the movie it was preceded by an animated "Fractured Fairy Tales" short, THE PHOX, THE BOX, & THE LOX (1999), which was a pleasant surprise and a pitch-perfect recreation of the old cartoons from Rocky & Bullwinkle (down to the vocal sound-alikes for Edward Everett Horton and Daws Butler, and the actual participation of June Foray).
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For action and excitement, KONG does not disappoint
22 June 2017
Merian C. Cooper and company tapped into something special with the original KING KONG (1933), captivating audiences with a fairly simple adventure fantasy (humans explore an undocumented island full of giant prehistoric monsters, and then bring one of the creatures back to modern civilization) and state-of-the-art cinematic special effects. But the story continues to resonate with moviegoers, through updates and retellings, out of a sympathy for Kong, the wild animal who fights dinosaurs at home, but is out of his depths in man's world.

The 1976 remake of KING KONG set the familiar events in the (then-)modern world, with shady oil corporations and environmentalists. In 2005, LORD OF THE RINGS helmer Peter Jackson retold Kong's story using the latest special effects technology, setting the three-hour epic during the original 1930s time period (and especially emphasizing Kong's emotional connection with Naomi Watts's would-be damsel in distress).

Over a decade later, KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) brings the giant gorilla back to the screen for a new generation, and a new blockbuster franchise. As the title suggests, the film is all about Kong's homeland of Skull Island. The film doesn't follow in the footsteps of prior iterations, as it positions Kong as a character who can appear in future sequels and spin-offs (facing off against other giant movie monsters from the Godzilla family of films).

Like the 1976 film, SKULL ISLAND updates the Kong story from the old-timey 1930s, placing the events in the retro 1970s. Specifically 1973, at the close of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Exploring the unexplored island is John Goodman, a monster hunter supposedly (and secretly) working on behalf of the U.S. government's Cold War interests (find the monster before the Russians do!) and accompanied by Samuel L. Jackson's helicopter squadron, fresh off their tour in Vietnam and ready to head home. Also along for the ride are Tom Hiddleston, an expert tracker to get the team through the jungle; Brie Larson, an anti-war photojournalist; and assorted scientists and technicians.

There's tension among the crew even before they encounter the skyscraper-sized gorilla. Military man Jackson and anti-war Larson don't see eye to eye, the scientists stick their noses up at the soldiers, and Goodman's urgency to find his monster puts him at odds with the better judgment of those who'd abort the expedition due to hellacious weather conditions. Once he witnesses Kong's destruction, Jackson, bitter about the outcome in Vietnam (a war that wasn't "lost", but "abandoned"), focuses his entire being on destroying his hairy nemesis (an unpopular agenda among survivors keen on escaping the island with lives and limbs intact).

Worries of the sympathetic creature in Peter Jackson's 2005 film having been truly recast as a hellish "monster", a terrible force of nature, may persist after the horror of Kong's first encounter with the helicopter squadron. But, new direction and all, SKULL ISLAND makes sure to hit upon the beats of the winning King Kong formula.

As is tradition, a tribe of natives inhabits the island. But this time there are no ritualistic sacrifices at the altar of Kong. In this version, the natives worship Kong as their protector, for it is the great Kong who keeps the nasty "skull-walker" reptiles at bay and fights off the other Skull Island beasties. John C. Reilly plays a marooned WWII pilot who's been living among the Skull Islanders for twenty-eight years and can explain things to the wandering survivors.

In this way, Kong is softened a little. He's merely protecting his territory from invaders. And in the grand scheme of things, Kong fights on the humans' side, or at least provides necessary opposition to the man-eating terrors that await in the jungles of Skull Island. Kong is no real threat unless provoked, and the humans need Kong on their side if they hope to survive.

There's even a hint of Kong's famous weakness for pretty girls, in a scene where the savage Kong is tamed, if only for a second, by the beauty and kindness of Brie Larson. SKULL ISLAND eschews the damsel-in-distress story-line, but pays homage to the connection between "beauty" and "the beast".

SKULL ISLAND is packed with action and terror. Besides Kong batting helicopters out of the air and stomping on fleeing personnel, there are the giant bone-chomping reptiles, vicious pterosaurs, towering spiders, and other unknown dangers threatening the scattered crew. Viewers never know what might happen. People die in a multitude of horrible ways. Survival until the final credits is certainly not assured, and the film builds on its tension with some clever match cuts.

One particularly tense scene makes inventive use of a malfunctioning camera flash to track a creature through the fog, and another scene subverts an expected act of heroism. The action scenes throughout the film are exciting, and make for a fun trip to the movies.

Samuel L. Jackson is scary as a slightly unhinged general hell-bent on avenging the deaths of his men. John C. Reilly steals the show as only he can, combining his signature brand of crazy with the film's moral center. Hiddleston and Larson are good, too, but despite little character moments, the main soldiers remain forgettable monster fodder.

The quasi-modern update is welcome and refreshing dressing for the bones of the adventure plot, with the Vietnam conflict right in the rear-view mirror and the Cold War context. The technology is modern-ish, but pre-digital (to keep things interesting), and the period rock music played by the soldiers is still popular today.

King Kong purists may miss the Empire State Building, but for the purposes of the new Kong-Godzilla shared movie franchise, SKULL ISLAND's narrower focus seems appropriate, and this latest version of Kong manages to take a new approach to the mythos while honoring its legacy. This new Kong is still Kong, and maybe audiences will soon get to see this protector of mankind step in against other famous larger-than-life creatures.
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Fun with magnets
20 June 2017
While Donald tries to fix the plumbing, Pluto swallows a powerful magnet and finds himself being chased around the house by various metallic items, which are magnetically attracted to his tail end.

Although notable as Donald Duck's first solo outing since gaining popularity as a supporting player in Mickey Mouse cartoons, this is really a Pluto cartoon. The entire short is built around exploring the comic possibilities of a dog with a magnetic behind, and the animators come up with some wonderful gags. The irascible Donald eventually finds himself on the wrong end of the destructive hijinks, and more hilarity ensues as he chases Pluto while wielding a metal pipe wrench. A lot of fun.
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Disney's classic characters, back in action for modern audiences
15 June 2017
Walt Disney's classic cartoon characters are back for a feature-length adventure. This hour-long direct-to-video 'toon features longtime Disney favorites Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Goofy, and Pluto, as well as Peg-Leg Pete and even Clarabelle Cow. These characters all started way back in the 1920s and 1930s, and it's nice to see them dusted off and brought to life on-screen these days, and not merely used to adorn merchandise.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (2004) is not, as one might expect, an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's classic story (previously adapted by Disney in live-action in 1993), but is an original adventure that uses Dumas as a jumping-off point. (Mickey, Donald, and Goofy aspire to be musketeers after a childhood encounter with the Dumas heroes.) Set once upon a time in seventeenth-century France, the movie's got Mickey, Donald, and Goofy as misfit musketeers trying to protect Princess Minnie while the duplicitous Captain Pete plots to become king.

The film is fast-paced and cartoony, with lots of gags to keep kids' attention. There's swashbuckling action and some peril, but the henchmen are as hapless as the heroes in this cartoon, so it's entirely kid-friendly stuff.

The music is conspicuously recycled from old classical tunes and other pre-existing (public domain?) songs, including several straight-up Gilbert & Sullivan songs in the climactic scene at the opera house ("Pirates of Penzance"). It seems like a cost-cutting measure for a direct-to-video release. As this movie is clearly aimed at children, one wonders how many of them would realize that the songs are set to famous classical tunes. (And does that matter?) Maybe this will be their first time hearing the music, and they'll forever afterward think of these lyrics. But on the other hand, maybe it's a fun way to expose young audiences to classical music for the first time.

There's an air of postmodernism about the way the film handles Disney's classic cartoon gang, to freshen them up for today's kids. For example, while scribbling "Mickey + Minnie Mouse" in her diary, a lovestruck Minnie realizes that she and Mickey have the same last name. (It's fate!) And, in another scene, Mickey confesses that he doesn't understand a word that Donald says. There's even a scene with Minnie and Daisy eating fast food in the royal carriage.

As the three unlikely musketeers, Mickey is "too small", Donald is "too cowardly", and Goofy is "too dumb". Mickey, primarily a corporate mascot at this point in his career, is bland, bland, bland. Scaredy-cat Donald and idiot Goofy are marginally more interesting, but Pete steals the show as the fourth-wall-breaking villain. Daisy Duck is given a modernized edge as dreamer Minnie's wise and more pragmatic lady-in-waiting. Clarabelle is a henchwoman, for some reason (probably just lucky to be included), but she's got personality and is fun to watch. A French-accented turtle acts as singing narrator throughout the story, and is annoying.

While it's encouraging to see Disney put its classic characters to use, this particular film is rather limp. The breakneck comedy seems designed to entertain antsy children, and it may well do so, but for more seasoned audiences, the gags fall flat and the "all for one" story is not very compelling.
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An unsung player in cinema history
7 January 2016
I love learning about film history and this documentary sheds light on a fascinating chapter from the early days of the motion picture business.

Coming from the legitimate stage, Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser sought to create films of higher quality than the nickelodeon offerings of the time. The independent Thanhouser Company, based in New Rochelle, New York (in the days before the movie industry moved out West to Hollywood), flourished for eight years in the 1910s, releasing adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens as well as original dramas and situation comedies, and boasting a stable of popular stars.

THE THANHOUSER STUDIO AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN_CINEMA (2014) documents the highs and lows in the studio's short history and is chock full of film clips and vintage poster art from dozens of little-remembered silent shorts.

I caught the documentary on Turner Classic Movies, whose programming over the past few years has exposed me to early films by Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison's company, and Mack Sennett. This film has piqued my interest in the Thanhouser movies and their stars (like the beautiful, but tragic, Florence La Badie). It was a real treat to see clips from early adaptations of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Cinderella", and "David Copperfield" that I never knew existed. I look forward to viewing these and other films mentioned in the doc (many of which can be found online).

As Ben Mankiewicz pointed out on TCM, this documentary was a labor of love. Ned Thanhouser has spent three decades trying to keep alive the legacy of a grandfather he never knew. To date he has found over 220 surviving films of the more than one thousand Thanhouser Company productions. (The New Rochelle studio suffered a devastating fire in 1913 and it's said that Edwin Thanhouser destroyed the company's remaining nitrate negatives after the enterprise folded in 1918.)

Ned Thanhouser hosts the documentary himself, surrounded by stacks of old film canisters, while film historians offer further insight and analysis of the Thanhouser Company and its place in the story of American cinema. Funded, at least in part, by an Indiegogo campaign, the film brings years of research to life for a general audience and should spark renewed interest in the century-old productions of Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser and the studio they built.
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Vice Versa (1948)
A delightful British body-swap comedy
4 September 2015
VICE VERSA (1948), a sort of proto-FREAKY_FRIDAY story about a father and son switching places, is a delightful British comedy in the vein of, perhaps, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949), brought to you by theatrical Renaissance man Peter Ustinov, who wrote, produced, and directed the film (but does not appear on-screen).

The action is set around the turn of the century and involves a magic wish-granting stone, stolen from a temple in India. When young Dick Bultitude protests being sent back to his boarding school, his blustery father (holding the stone) makes an off-hand remark about wishing to be young again. Soon the elder Bultitude finds himself in the body of a schoolboy, the spitting image of his own son. And Dick grabs the stone and wishes to be grown-up, filling out the body of his middle-aged father. Understandably, everyone mistakes Dick for his father and vice versa, sending the father off to school in the boy's place and leaving the son to manage the father's affairs at home.

The dual performances by the two main actors are superb, with an adolescent Anthony Newley (later to star in DOCTOR DOLITTLE and write songs for WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY in a varied entertainment career) doing a spot-on imitation of Roger Livesey's Bultitude Sr. and Livesey in turn acting believably childish as a boy in a man's body. Each actor gives such a distinctly different performance after the body swap that it's no trouble believing that Newley IS a fifty-year-old man or that Livesey IS a boy of fourteen, despite the absurdity of it all. And from there the hijinks are a lot of fun.

Ustinov's film has a wonderful flair for comedy, from the charmingly old-timey title slides to the bookending narrative device that breaks the fourth wall, inviting the audience into the Bultitude home. The literate script uses stuffy British propriety to humorous effect, particularly through the characters of Paul Bultitude (the father) and James Robertson Justice's strict headmaster Dr. Grimstone. There's also a madcap farce of a duel and a subsequent courtroom scene that's a riot.
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An epic animated adventure, left unfinished
3 September 2015
If it weren't for Peter Jackson's ambitious live action "Lord of the Rings" trilogy in the early 2000s, Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated epic would be the definitive screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy saga.

Having never read Tolkein's books, my understanding of "The Lord of the Rings" came from Peter Jackson's films, and it's surprising how similar this earlier animated version is. Besides following the same storyline, some visual designs and many of the shots are very similar. It's almost as if Jackson used Bakshi's film as a guide for his storyboards, unless the images come from Tolkein's descriptions or the books' illustrations.

Bakshi's THE LORD OF THE RINGS is an ambitious undertaking, condensing the first two books of the series into a single epic animated feature. And while many directors considered Tolkein's story impossible to film in live action (until Jackson pulled it off), Bakshi's film is actually largely live action itself. The animation makes heavy use of rotoscoping, i.e., drawing over live action reference footage to capture lifelike movement. In fact, most of the film tries to blend animation with live action footage, with some characters completely animated and others (usually the gruesome orcs) barely filtered live action. And there are times (usually the action scenes) when characters are clearly colorized live action footage, or they sort of phase between animation and live action.

It seems like rotoscoping was used as a shortcut, to save the animators the pain and agony of hand-drawing an army of beastly orcs frame-by-frame. And perhaps as a way to capture realistic motion (with flowing capes and lots of running hither and thither). The blending of animation and rotoscoping/live action yields mixed results, but it doesn't get in the way of telling the story.

Bakshi's film is not dumbed down for the kiddies. It's dark and violent and, I imagine, faithful to the spirit of Tolkein's work. Of course that's not to say that kids can't enjoy the movie. The tone seems just right and the adventure tale is as captivating as ever.

I was very interested to see this animated LORD OF THE RINGS and as I watched it I was impressed by how the film manages to cover most of the important scenes and include most of the important characters I remember from the Peter Jackson trilogy. At the time I was expecting Bakshi's THE LORD OF THE RINGS to fit all three books into a single film, clocking in at just a little over two hours. I was curious to see how he'd done it. But to my surprise, the movie leaves things up in the air with a sense of "to be continued". Apparently the third book, "The Return of the King", was going to be filmed as "Part Two", but such a film never materialized. So the movie we're left with only covers two-thirds of the saga, ending after the battle at Helm's Deep with Frodo and Sam still on their way to Mount Doom. The story of the One Ring is never concluded and Gollum's devious plot is never realized.

The film is quite enjoyable, bringing Tolkein's fantasy tale to life, but it ends rather abruptly with empty promises of more adventure to come.
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Flushed Away (2006)
An animated adventure that dances to its own beat
2 September 2015
FLUSHED AWAY (2006) is an adventure tale about a pet rat from a posh London neighborhood who is flushed out of his home and into the sewers, where he discovers a thriving rat city.

Hugh Jackman voices Roddy, the rat from "up top" who doesn't realize how lonely he is until he gets a taste of life in the outside world. Kate Winslet voices Rita the sewer rat, a street-smart woman-of-action who captains a ship and hunts for treasure to support her poor family. Roddy hopes Rita can help him get home, but his bumbling gets her into trouble with the sinister Toad (voiced deliciously by Sir Ian McKellen).

FLUSHED AWAY is a film from the British-based Aardman Studios (of Wallace & Gromit fame). Released through Dreamworks Animation, it is a rare foray for Aardman into the realm of feature-length computer animation, which is stylized to approximate the studio's signature stop-motion aesthetic (particularly with the staccato mouth movements).

The animation in the opening scene at Roddy's house seems well below the industry standard, surprisingly poor for a major studio release in 2006, but the film looks better once the action moves to the sewers.

Any shortcomings in the animation are easily overlooked because the film is so creative and so much fun. The movie is packed with visual gags and a wonderful sense of comedy. It's a rather unique story, full of delightful quirks. The Toad is a riot and his French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) and his team of scuba suit-wearing henchfrogs are hilarious. (The mime gag is comedic genius.) The singing slugs provide well-timed comic relief, and are much funnier (in an oddball way) than the popular comic relief minions of DESPICABLE ME (2010).

Very much a British film, the action is set in London around the hoopla of the soccer World Cup. The Toad has a collection of Royal Family memorabilia and even has a tragic personal history with Prince Charles. The filmmakers also have fun with cultural stereotypes, spoofing American tourists as well as Frenchmen, Italians, etc. (as seen through British eyes).

And for a movie about toilets and sewers, the script tries to go easy on the really gross stuff. The full implications of the premise are glossed over to make for a more stomachable film, though there are a couple gross-out gags that the filmmakers couldn't pass up.

With so many wonderful characters (in addition to those mentioned, Andy Serkis and an almost unrecognizable Bill Nighy voice the Toad's odd couple rat henchmen to hilarious effect), some truly great character animation (the Toad and the bouncy frogs in particular), such a brilliant sense of humor, and an adventure story that is both exciting and full of heart, FLUSHED AWAY is an entertaining flick. Its creativity, especially in the creation of the rat city (built out of miniature odds and ends from the human world above) and the sewer civilization of anthropomorphic critters, is impressive. It's nice to see a film that's not derivative, and one that's so much fun.

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The Squaw Man (1931)
DeMille perfects his noble tale
17 August 2015
I really enjoy films from around 1931. I like the "early talkie" aesthetic, with gritty black & white photography, sparse (if any) musical scoring, and slightly edgy pre-Code content. In those days of the studio system, Hollywood studios would churn out lots of inconsequential 72-minute quickies. But Cecil B. DeMille's THE SQUAW MAN (1931) is clearly not one of them. DeMille was an auteur and THE SQUAW MAN is something special. A cut above the usual Hollywood fare of the time.

This 1931 film is actually DeMille's third adaptation of the story, following his 1914 and 1918 silents. The third time's the charm for DeMille, who crafts an involving tale with a fine cast and the added dimension of sound.

Jim Wyngate nobly leaves England to live in self-exile in America for the sake of his cousin's marriage to the beautiful Lady Diana. At the same time, he nobly volunteers himself to take the blame for his cousin's embarrassing mishandling of charitable funds. He settles out West and takes up ranching under an assumed name. He makes friends and enemies amongst the cowboys and becomes attached to a young Indian woman. (Native American, that is.) After years of living as a cowboy in Arizona, will Wyngate return to England and resume his past aristocratic lifestyle? Can he?

The cast is great across the board. Warner Baxter, three years removed from his Oscar-winning turn as the Cisco Kid (IN OLD ARIZONA - 1928), stars as Jim Wyngate, the selfless hero. The lovely Eleanor Boardman (THE CROWD - 1928) plays Lady Diana, who loves Wyngate but is married to his cousin (Paul Cavanagh). Charles Bickford is great as the heavy and DeWitt Jennings does a good job as the villainous sheriff. Roland Young (TOPPER - 1937), a personal favorite of mine, has a nice supporting role.

Sexy Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez is Naturich, the "primitive-minded" Indian girl who is chivalrously defended by Wyngate and repays him by saving his life a couple times. There's a connection between the two that transcends cultural barriers and, half a world away from Diana and his past life, the white man takes Naturich as his wife. Velez is heartbreaking in a scene where she fashions a crude toy horse as a birthday gift for her half-breed son (Dickie Moore), who is more interested in his model train.

This film is a vast improvement over C.B. DeMille's own landmark 1914 version. Although the basic plot line is the same, there are several differences in the stories. I don't know which film is closer to the original "Squaw Man" play, but I found this talkie version more effective. (In fact, the 1914 film might not have made as much sense if I wasn't already familiar with the story from this later version.)

The key to this version is the emotional ties between the characters. Jim loves Diana, but nothing can come of it. So he moves thousands of miles away, but we see his face when he sees her picture in the society section. He learns to move on while living with Naturich, but Diana makes a surprise visit and expects things to be just as they were. Jim is excited at the prospect of returning to England, but there's no place for Naturich in English society. And noble Jim wouldn't walk out on poor sweet Naturich. But what of their son? Half white man, half Indian. Should he be taught to rope cattle and beat tom-toms, or should he receive the fine education to which the Wyngate family is accustomed? Jim struggles to decide his son's future at a crucial point. There are no simple solutions for anyone. It may sound melodramatic, but viewers are invested in the characters and must know how things turn out.

The characterizations in the 1914 silent film lack heart.
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Silent/Talkie Hybrid from Frank Capra
13 August 2015
THE YOUNGER GENERATION (1929) starts as a silent film, complete with synchronized audio track (for music and sound effects), but eventually lapses into an early talkie with spoken dialogue. The scenes alternate between silent and sound throughout the duration of the film. It's an interesting curiosity for film history buffs, as the movie was released at seemingly the exact moment when Hollywood transitioned from silent cinema to talking pictures.

The story is nothing groundbreaking. The Goldfish family rises from the cultural melting pot of the Lower East Side to Fifth Avenue high society, thanks to son Morris (Ricardo Cortez), a shrewd businessman who grows the family furniture store into a successful antiques emporium.

Morris rules his family with an iron fist, forbidding his sister Birdie (Lina Basquette) from seeing her childhood sweetheart from the old neighborhood. The ritzy Fifth Avenue lifestyle stifles Papa Goldfish (Jean Hersholt), who misses his friends from Delancey Street. Morris even legally changes his surname from Goldfish to the less-Jewish "Fish" in order to distance himself from his family's ethnic heritage.

As an early talkie, many of the line readings are a bit awkward, though Basquette handles the dialogue better than the rest of the cast (even Cortez). But even with her naturalistic delivery, the lines are often written awkwardly.

Still, the human drama pulls at your heart. Financial success brings misery to the Goldfish family. Morris is a real jerk, and everyone else in his house suffers as he climbs the social ladder. Cut off from her family, Birdie stitches together a happy little life with her songwriter husband, while Morris obsesses over his social position and leads an ultimately empty existence. Lina Basquette is pretty cute as Birdie and Jean Hersholt's performance is heartbreaking.
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The Marvel B-movie that never got a chance
29 July 2015
Today, movies based on comic book superheroes are all the rage. They are routinely some of the biggest blockbusters of the year and several recent superhero flicks are among the highest grossing films of all time. But this was not always so. For a while, comic book heroes were relegated to cheap serials and B pictures, along with made-for-TV movies.

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978) was a "real" movie: an A picture with a Hollywood-sized budget and a cast of name actors. Tim Burton's BATMAN (1989) was another "real" movie based on a comic book superhero. Both films spawned successful franchises, bringing the fantasy world of DC Comics to life on the big screen. But in the early '90s, it seemed that comic book properties (outside of Batman, that is) were still largely considered niche fare, worthy only of low-budget productions aimed at children (the perceived comic book-reading community). Marvel Comics did not have the kind of success enjoyed by rival DC. While Superman and Batman had been brought to the screen courtesy of Warner Bros., Marvel's characters were licensed out to small-time studios. A planned Spider-Man film fell through in the late '80s and a low-budget Captain America film was released direct-to-video in 1990.

Which brings us to THE FANTASTIC FOUR (1994). If comic book movies were thought to be too goofy or weird for mainstream, big-budget productions, then I guess THE FANTASTIC FOUR is the perfect low-budget, cheesy superhero movie. The film remains true to the comics with regard to the colorful costumes and the characters. (Evidently there was little concern in these movies to "adapt" the source material for mainstream consumption.) The special effects aren't too fancy, but it's interesting to see how the filmmakers make do with what they've got in order to tell their story.

The movie tells the origin of Marvel Comics' First Family. An outer space mishap leaves four individuals with extraordinary abilities. Dr. Reed Richards ("Mr. Fantastic") can stretch his body like a rubber band. Sue Storm ("The Invisible Girl") can become invisible. Johnny Storm ("Human Torch") can conjure flames. Ben Grimm ("The Thing") has a rocklike exterior and super-strength. They must battle Dr. Doom, a hooded megalomaniac who wants to harness the secret to their powers.

Rebecca Staab is too cute as Sue Storm (and in that blue spandex... wowsers). Joseph Culp hams it up to a high degree as Dr. Doom. His face hidden behind a metal mask, Doom takes to wild gesticulations and his booming dialogue is amusingly over-the-top. Jay Underwood, looking like Armie Hammer's long-lost older brother, plays the fiery-tempered Johnny Storm, who mainly shoots fire out of his hand. He doesn't realize his full "Human Torch" potential until the climax, when the producers shell out for some early CGI. The animatronic Thing mask is rather impressive, despite some lip-sync limitations. Of all the superpowers portrayed in the film, Reed Richards's stretchy effects are the most awkward.

It's nice to see Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) portrayed as maybe a half-generation older than Sue and Johnny. Reed knew Sue when she was a kid and he was a college student. A decade later, Reed is a big-time scientist, complete with (somewhat ridiculous) gray temples and Sue and Johnny are grown-up enough to go with him on a space mission. Ben (Michael Bailey Smith), Reed's jock buddy from college, is the pilot.

In this story, Reed Richards and Doom were college eggheads together before the accident that led Doom down his sinister path. Reed blames himself for his friend's apparent death, while Doom seeks revenge by sabotaging Reed's later expedition. In the ten-year gap Doom has somehow become the iron-fisted ruler of some foreign domain, living in a mountaintop castle and everything.

A secondary villain, the Jeweler (Ian Trigger), leads an underground society of social outcasts. He has a poetic soul and serves as an interesting contrast to Doom.

I'm only casually familiar with "Fantastic Four" comic book continuity, but this 1994 movie hits some right notes. The romance between Reed and Sue, starting as a schoolgirl crush on a mentor figure. The love story between the monstrously disfigured Ben Grimm and the blind Alicia Masters. The blue and white costumes (sewn apparently out of thin air by Sue Storm on a lazy afternoon at the Baxter Building). There's even an appearance by the Fantasticar.

The film never mentions the heroes' well-known comic book nicknames, but in one particularly corny scene the team is given its "Fantastic Four" moniker. The movie also posits the theory that the cosmic rays that transformed them delved into their psyches and turned their personal weaknesses into their greatest strengths (shy violet Sue Storm has the ability to disappear, etc.). I don't know if this comes from the comic book origins, but the pseudoscientific explanation allows the film to move on to more important things.

As a low-budget superhero romp, THE FANTASTIC FOUR goes down easy. It's not the polished studio blockbuster that we've come to expect from comic book movies, but it's a faithful adaptation on a small scale. A quaint little movie with a lot of heart. Somewhat tragically, the film was never intended to be released, unbeknownst to the cast and crew. All their hard work for nothing. Luckily the movie has found its way out into the world and can be tracked down by those interested in giving it a shot.
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Can't live up to the promise of its first 25 minutes
21 July 2015
I was a superhero fan growing up, but I somehow never knew this film existed. I heard about it in recent years, probably around the time Marvel Studios was producing CAPTAIN_AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) for its shared cinematic universe. From what I heard, this 1990 version was a joke. But as I watched it, I was surprised to find that this is a legitimate Marvel Comics movie. Or at least it starts that way. In fact, the story of Captain America's origin (breezed through in a matter of minutes) is rather similar to the version that plays out in the 2011 film. This 1990 film keeps the retro WWII origin for Cap and the star-spangled costume is right out of the comics. The plot moves along rather briskly, and admittedly there are some cheesy scenes, but the first twenty-five minutes of the movie feel like a pulpy comic book brought to life. And in 1990, that's probably what they were going for.

Matt Salinger plays Steve Rogers, who volunteers for a top-secret government experiment to create super soldiers from the physically weak. He's not a scrawny kid like in THE FIRST AVENGER, but rather a strapping young man who suffers from polio and walks with a limp. The experiment turns Rogers into Captain America, the Allied secret weapon against Hitler and his own super soldier, the gruesome Red Skull (an Italian this time around, not a German). On his first mission, Captain America heroically foils the Nazis' plot to bomb the White House, but is consequently lost in the frozen North. Thawed out several decades later, Cap is called upon to ferret out the still-living Red Skull and rescue the President.

Cap's 1940s sweetheart is not Agent Peggy Carter, but Bernie, a girl from his hometown. He returns to find she has married and grown old, but she has a pretty blonde daughter named Sharon (a nod to Sharon Carter of the comics, no doubt). Sharon tags along with Steve as he tracks the Red Skull back to his native Italy.

Disappointingly, the movie as a whole doesn't live up to its first twenty-five minutes. There's a long section in the second half where Steve Rogers does his sleuthing without the costume, and there's nothing really Captain America-y going on. If they were gonna make one Captain America movie and have it stand alone in representing the character on the big screen, they should've had the guy wear the costume more. Otherwise the film becomes a generic action flick.

And while Red Skull is a brand-name comic book villain, his present-day incarnation in this film is a big letdown. Decades removed from his red-skulled WWII treachery, the evil mastermind has undergone plastic surgery to cover up his deformity as he lives quietly in his Italian fortress. With his slicked-back hair and tailored suits, the Red Skull looks like any generic mob boss.

It becomes obvious that CAPTAIN_AMERICA (1990) is a low-budget affair, not the Hollywood blockbuster that we've come to expect from superhero movies these days. The photography of the climactic action scenes in Italy looks almost amateurish. The cast seems fairly obscure today, although real-deal character actors Ned Beatty and Darren McGavin lend support, and Melinda Dillon has a scene as Steve Rogers's mother.

There are several points where the movie seems to be on the right track (there's a touching scene between Steve and Bernie, reunited after fifty years), but it somehow loses its way. (Reading up on the film, it seems some character development from the original script was cut from the final edit.) And the film oddly tries to carry a half-hearted environmentalist message, even urging the audience to support the Environmental Protection Act of 1990 in the end credits.

CAPTAIN_AMERICA (1990) is a strange movie.

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Facing the Depression with a smile: A hidden gem!
3 June 2015
ROMANCE IN MANHATTAN (1935) is an immigrant story. Karel Novak (Francis Lederer) comes to America -- "The Land of Opportunity" -- with dreams of becoming a millionaire. He intends to work hard and has already learned to speak English. Right off the boat, he seems an ideal candidate for entry into the country. But the money he's saved is no longer enough to satisfy the immigration fee, which has risen from fifty to two hundred dollars. And so Karel must be sent back to Czechoslovakia, where he may never save enough money for a return trip to the States. Desperate, Karel escapes his deportation and tries to live the American Dream as an illegal alien in New York City.

Francis Lederer is supremely likable as Karel Novak, charming and optimistic, though naïve. Karel sees America as the land of his dreams, a place that could well be Heaven. He gets giddy with excitement just seeing the Manhattan skyline lit up at night. Unfortunately Karel enters an America that is mired in a Depression, and millionaires -- and jobs, for that matter -- are hard to come by.

Ginger Rogers plays Sylvia, a chorus girl who lives with her little brother, a paper boy when he's not in school (or vice versa). The two earn what they can and take care of each other in these tough times. Sylvia comes to Karel's aid when he's penniless and homeless and soon he's like a member of the family. Sylvia's brother gets Karel a job selling newspapers and Sylvia lets him sleep on the roof of their apartment building. After a while Karel gets a job driving a taxi and starts saving up money to square things with the immigration office. But when Sylvia loses her job, Karel dips into his savings to help out and soon he's back where he started.

In the meantime Karel and Sylvia fall in love. And really who can blame them? But Karel's status as an illegal immigrant is going to come back to haunt him and he knows it. And while Karel's struggling with that, Sylvia's trying to keep her brother from being taken away from her and placed in an orphan asylum.

ROMANCE IN MANHATTAN is a winner and I don't know how it's slipped under the radar. Francis Lederer and Ginger Rogers are a lovable pair and the film's got Depression-era drama around every corner. Our poor heroes are handed tough break after tough break, just trying to make a go of the "American Dream", but they take each blow on the chin, determined to get by somehow. Karel, the eternal optimist, faces adversity with a smile. It's a cute love story wrapped inside a social drama, and a pleasant watch the whole way through.

The question posed at the climax of the film is whether Karel Novak, being a hard-working and respectable young man, deserves any breaks from the immigration office. Sure, he's in the country illegally, but can something be worked out for the poor guy? It's an ethical problem that can be seen as black and white or as shades of gray. The film makes its decision on the matter and I won't spoil it.
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A meta thrill ride for movie lovers
3 June 2015
LAST ACTION HERO (1993) is a clever satire of blockbuster action films and is loaded with meta references that are sure to delight movie buffs.

At the heart of the story is Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), a young movie lover, raised by a single mom (Mercedes Ruehl) in New York City, who skips school to watch his favorite action flicks for the umpteenth time at a dilapidated movie palace run by a dotty old man named Nick (Robert Prosky). Danny escapes his troubles in the adrenaline-pumping fantasies of the cinema, especially the JACK SLATER film series.

The JACK SLATER movies spoof the action franchises popular at the time, like DIE HARD or LETHAL WEAPON. Jack Slater is the ultimate badass, working for the LAPD but doing things his own way. Chomping on cigars, kicking down doors. Going where other cops wouldn't dare.

In the film, the star of the JACK SLATER series is real-world action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is LAST ACTION HERO's biggest meta concept as Schwarzenegger stars as a parody of himself (playing both Arnold and Arnold-as-Jack).

With the help of an enchanted ticket given to Nick by the famed escape artist Harry Houdini, Danny is able to enter the world of the newest JACK SLATER movie and help Jack beat the bad guys. It should be a dream come true, but instead of just going along with it, Danny tries to shatter Jack's worldview by proving that he "lives" in a fictional movie universe, full of improbable explosions, predictable one-liners, and physics-defying stunts. Danny calls out Jack for using well-known Arnold catchphrases like "I'll be back" and tries to explain the absurdity of Jack's LAPD colleague being an animated anthropomorphic cat (voiced by Danny DeVito). Jack thinks Danny's crazy (obviously), but Danny's uncanny knowledge of secret information (gleaned from watching prior installments of the JACK SLATER series, as well as the opening scenes from this one) gets him assigned as Jack's partner, in true buddy movie fashion.

Danny is always completely self-aware about being the comic sidekick in an action movie. He knows Jack Slater's world is governed by plot contrivances and movie clichés. He even calls out the villain for monologuing. Austin O'Brien doesn't do a bad job in the film, but he does start to get on my nerves a little.

The fun really starts once the villain (Charles Dance) gets ahold of the magic ticket and enters the real world, a place where heroes can bleed and bad guys can actually win. Jack and Danny track him to the star-studded premiere of JACK SLATER IV, where fictional hero Jack Slater comes face-to-face with Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger (among other fun celebrity cameos).

The satire of LAST ACTION HERO is on-point. Besides getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to spoof himself, the movie is directed by John McTiernan, who directed DIE HARD (1988), and the screenplay was co-written by Shane Black, who wrote LETHAL WEAPON (1987). The top-notch pedigree surely helps sell the film's high concept.

The script has a lot of potential for the right actor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger seems like he's having a lot of fun with the material. It wouldn't be the same without a real A-list action star playing Jack Slater. Arnold has a good sense of humor about himself and seems to enjoy playing with his image.

One of the best in-jokes for serious movie buffs comes early in the film when Danny's English teacher, played by Joan Plowright, introduces a clip from Laurence Olivier's HAMLET (1948), suggesting that the students might know the British acting legend from his late-career role of Zeus in CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) or an older TV commercial for Polaroid. Plowright is, of course, Olivier's widow.

In addition to HAMLET, the movie includes nods to Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), Francis Ford Coppola's DRACULA_(1992), and WITNESS (1985) with Harrison Ford. In the movie world Danny warns Jack not to trust his FBI buddy John Practice because he is played by F. Murray Abraham, the guy who "killed Mozart" (an allusion to AMADEUS (1984)). A Humphrey Bogart-type detective in a trench coat appears in one of the JACK SLATER police station scenes. And since "Arnold Schwarzenegger" can't exist in the fictional world of Jack Slater, his famous role in the TERMINATOR films is played instead by Sylvester Stallone.

The JACK SLATER action is hilariously over-the-top and stylized, satirizing Hollywood action blockbusters and further contrasting the fantasy world of the silver screen with the real world Danny knows. The original story, developed by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, is quite clever and the film, unconventional as it is, succeeds because of its uniqueness. The movie's a lot of fun and there are plenty of Easter eggs for hardcore cinephiles.
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Bright Lights (1930)
Show People
1 June 2015
A Broadway star is giving up the stage to marry a millionaire, but she might be happier with the man who brought her up through the showbiz ranks.

BRIGHT LIGHTS (1930) is ultimately a movie about a show business family and how everyone supports each other. The action takes place on the night of Louanne's (Dorothy Mackaill) last performance in a successful musical revue before settling down with a rich society type. Louanne's co-star Wally (Frank Fay) has been with her through the ups and downs, and in fact groomed Louanne to be the star she's become. Wally loves Louanne and wants nothing but the best for her, even if that means letting her marry another man.

Director Michael Curtiz uses flashback sequences to contrast Louanne's press-friendly account of her "innocent" past with the more vulgar realities of her life (dancing the hula in African saloons and cheap carnivals). When her past threatens to ruin her impending marriage, Wally steps in to protect her.

I'd recently seen Dorothy Mackaill in another talkie and was disappointed with her performance, but she's much better here. Much more "alive", joking around with Fay in an early scene in her dressing room and doing her fair share of singing and dancing in the musical numbers. Frank Fay plays his role like an old pro. He made relatively few movies in his career but I still find ones I haven't seen before.

Joining them in the cast is Inez Courtney, who pops up in lots of early-'30s films as the female lead's funny friend. She's awfully cute here as another performer whose boyfriend (THE CROWD's James Murray) makes a business deal with a ghost from Louanne's past. That ghost (and the villain of the piece) is Noah Beery Sr., playing a Portuguese (?!) diamond smuggler from Louanne's African days. Frank McHugh is the inebriated reporter who hangs around backstage and Tom Dugan and frequent Laurel & Hardy co-star Daphne Pollard play a battling married couple in the company.

The cast of the show-within-the-show, along with their romantic partners, the stage manager, the security guard, and the usual crowd buzzing around backstage make up a sort of close-knit family, and it's touching to see how they cover for each other when the theater becomes the scene of a murder investigation.

There are several musical routines featured within the context of the story. The songs are nothing special and the choreography isn't very elaborate (we're not talking about Busby Berkeley here), but it might've been the bee's knees back in the very early days of film musicals. The opening number is an ode to New York City (including a bizarre Wall Street set piece), and there's a "rah rah" college-themed number and an exotic "cannibal" number.

Some of the jokes fall flat, but the cast is engaging and the film balances music, romance, comedy, and suspense all in a comfortable sixty-nine minutes.

TCM aired BRIGHT LIGHTS under its rather misleading re-release name ADVENTURES IN_AFRICA.
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A fascinating look into history
24 May 2015
I rate THE LION HAS WINGS (1939) a 7/10 on the strength of the fascinating documentary footage that makes up much of the first half of the film. (The scenes involving the actors are considerably less fascinating.)

THE LION HAS WINGS is a British propaganda film that seeks to stir up support for the war effort by appealing to a sense of British pride, with particular focus on Britain's air supremacy in its war with Germany.

The early portion of the film uses documentary footage to paint a picture of idyllic British life, in sharp contrast to the military state being run by Adolf Hitler. Hitler, surrounded by a sea of guards, is contrasted with Great Britain's King George VI, who walks openly among his people. The film succeeds in demonizing Hitler as an unscrupulous leader with an outdated hunger for conquest. The film even makes use of archival footage of one of Hitler's early speeches as it drives home the point that he's broken lots of promises by annexing neighboring lands. Excerpts are highlighted from "Mein Kampf" outlining the true ambitions of a man who does not want peace (at least until Germany rules Europe).

The movie is very interesting from a historical standpoint. It covers recent events in world history and also offers a look at British society in the 1930s, touching upon things like sports and recreation, hospital care, and housing improvements. There's footage from an air show, demonstrating the talents of British flyers, as well as some really cool looks at airplane and ammunition manufacture and the "balloon barrage" defense against air strikes. In addition to the archival footage of Hitler and King George VI, we get to hear British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's radio address informing the British people that war is declared. With the narrator guiding you along, the movie is quite educational.

The actors take over around the halfway point and the film becomes more of a dramatization of bombing raids abroad and the RAF's defense of the homeland. This may have been just the thing to arouse patriotism at the time, but it's rather hum-drum now. These dangerous and exciting missions have been brought to life much better in other films.

The main players are Ralph Richardson and the always lovely Merle Oberon, as a young couple who answer the call when their country needs them. What story is there is no great shakes, but it serves its purpose within the film. There are others in the cast, though most of the parts are minor. Flora Robson has a cameo as Queen Elizabeth I in a scene about England's defense against the Spanish Armada (a scene borrowed from the 1937 film FIRE OVER ENGLAND).

THE LION HAS WINGS ties England's proud naval heritage with Britain's more recent mastery of flight, comparing the ace pilots of the RAF with Sir Francis Drake and the other great English seamen. And the film makes it very clear that Great Britain had no choice but to go to war with Hitler's Germany, after repeated offenses on the continent and no effort to discuss a peaceful settlement. As the narrator puts it, the British people prefer to win sports matches, but they can win wars, too, if they must. It's also stressed that the highly skilled airmen of the RAF bomb only strategic military targets, not cities full of innocent civilians (another dig at the evil dictator).

Released at a time when Great Britain had just entered what would become World War II, THE LION HAS WINGS makes sure the British people know what they're fighting for and appeals to their nationalistic pride to win support for what may have been, at the time, an unpopular war.
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The Fugitive (1993)
Director's commentary adds insight
23 May 2015
On first viewing, I found THE FUGITIVE (1993) to be a slick mid-'90s thriller. A larger-than-life story of the wrongfully convicted man-on-the-run, hellbent on proving his innocence and bringing his wife's killer to justice. But the DVD audio commentary by director Andrew Davis greatly enhanced my appreciation of the film.

What's most impressive is the amount of dialogue that was ad-libbed, particularly by Tommy Lee Jones and his posse of U.S. Marshals. In order to produce a sense of spontaneity, the actors were encouraged to understand their characters' motivations and then work out their lines together on-set, instead of adhering strictly to the written script. This allowed the actors to make the characters their own and made the interplay more natural. This surely contributed to Tommy Lee Jones's Oscar victory for his colorful performance.

The production also strove for realism wherever possible. For the train crash scene, they crashed a full-size train. Director Andrew Davis, a Chicago native, made use of authentic Chicago locations. He snuck footage during the real Chicago St. Patrick's Day parade and opted to use a real office interior, with a real view of the city, rather than a phony backdrop. Tommy Lee Jones rode in a real helicopter and Harrison Ford drove a real ambulance. Movie-making is all about storytelling and filmmakers work hard to create illusions. Nowadays it's possible to do anything using digital special effects. So it's impressive to see a big action thriller like THE FUGITIVE make the movie "for real".
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Vagabond Lady (1935)
Cute movie
18 May 2015
Department store owner R.D. Spear (Berton Churchill) is a stuffy businessman and his son Johnny (Reginald Denny) is following in his father's footsteps. But their orderly world is shaken up with the surprise return of Johnny's fun-loving brother Tony (Robert Young), who'd been sailing abroad for several years.

Jo Spiggins (Evelyn Venable), the daughter of Mr. Spear's old college chum, grew up with Johnny and Tony and now Johnny has asked her to marry him. But Tony really brings out the kid in Jo, and they both enjoy fun things like going to circuses and chewing on gumdrops. Johnny is all about dignity and highbrow culture (operas, etc.). He realizes that Jo doesn't share his tastes in the finer things, but hopes to groom her to be on his level of sophistication.

It's so cute to see Jo and Tony together. Her face lights up when she sees him and it's like they're kids again, thick as thieves. There's a big difference in the way she acts with Johnny and the way she acts with Tony. Johnny stifles her more playful, childish instincts, while Tony embraces them.

Having not seen her in years, Tony doesn't realize that he has any romantic feelings toward Jo until her father (Frank Craven) suggests it. (Jo's father wants to save his daughter from marrying the stuffy Johnny, and notes her interest in "good ol' Tony".) As his brother points out, Tony has never really grown up, but in the scene where he realizes how much he cares about Jo you can see the transformation in him. Unfortunately, ghosts from Tony's wild past send Jo running back to stable, boring Johnny.

The movie shows how passionately Jo and Tony feel about each other by how heated their arguments get. And when they start throwing things at each other and tossing each other over furniture, we know they're in love. Strange as it may seem, it's cute to watch. Exhausted from their fight, they collapse into each other's arms.

I wasn't expecting much from this movie, but it managed to charm me. Evelyn Venable is very pretty as Jo and it's immediately clear that she belongs with Tony, not Johnny. Robert Young and Reginald Denny both do well in their parts. Frank Craven is great as Jo's father, particularly in the scene where he gauges Jo's interest in Tony by the way she defends him against disparaging remarks. With charming performances by the cast and some great little comedic moments, VAGABOND LADY (1935) is an enjoyable, if inconsequential, romantic comedy.
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An interesting spin on wartime romance
18 May 2015
A WOMAN OF EXPERIENCE (1931) is a rather interesting pre-Code melodrama set during WWI.

Helen Twelvetrees plays a "registered woman" (prostitute) in Vienna. With the outbreak of war, she patriotically offers her services as a nurse, but is turned away. She's then recruited as a spy, assigned to use her feminine charms to keep tabs on a suspected traitor in the Austrian army. But her assignment is derailed when she unexpectedly falls in love with a naive young naval officer who sees in her his ideal of female purity.

The naval lieutenant (William Bakewell) doesn't realize that Twelvetrees is "a woman of experience", and she hasn't the heart to wake him from his delusions. Meanwhile, all this romance is sidetracking Twelvetrees from her sworn duty. She can't tell the young lieutenant that she's a prostitute and she can't tell him that she's a spy, either.

When the lieutenant volunteers for a dangerous submarine mission, Twelvetrees finally has the opportunity to play Mata Hari. She tries to break things off with the lieutenant gently with a letter, explaining that she's found someone else in his absence, but her heart belongs only to him. He's the only man who's ever treated her halfway decent, ignorant as he is of her past.

It's not a particularly notable movie, but what stands out is the story's interesting combination of socially doomed romance (the notorious woman and the young aristocrat) with wartime intrigue. Not only is a woman -- a prostitute, no less -- recruited as a spy for her country, but that same prostitute also falls in love with an innocent young man from a respectable family.

On the one hand it's "Can this woman (of experience) prove to be a valuable citizen when her country needs her?" and on the other it's "How long can this love affair last before a.) the truth about her past, b.) his disapproving mother, or c.) unforeseen tragedy get in the way?" It's like two plots woven together into one.

I also found it interesting that the officer in charge of counterintelligence was shown with an actual book of "registered women", complete with headshots and vital statistics. The officer (played by H.B. Warner) symbolically removes Twelvetrees's photo when she accepts her assignment, but later replaces it when she fails to make headway.

With early talkies you sometimes hear unusual pronunciations of everyday words, for whatever reason. What amused me with A WOMAN OF EXPERIENCE was listening to all the characters pronounce "lieutenant" as "LOOT-nint".
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Joan Blondell is the saving grace
16 May 2015
Joan Blondell, here playing the little sister, is about a thousand times more charismatic on-screen than star Dorothy Mackaill, and her presence is one of the only excuses to give THE RECKLESS HOUR (1931) a shot.

The Depression-era melodrama starts off boringly enough (until we meet Blondell's character) and covers the familiar ground of the rich boy dating the middle class girl and making promises he never intends to keep, leaving the girl to suffer the consequences on her own.

Dorothy Mackaill's line readings really bring the movie down. It's something about her enunciation and how she spaces her lines apart. Blondell, for example, is much more naturalistic, but H.B. Warner and Conrad Nagel are also noticeably better than Mackaill in their scenes with her. Top-billed Mackaill is probably the worst actor in the whole film, and some of the scenes late in the movie, with the melodrama slapped on pretty thick, are almost impossible to take seriously.

Joan Blondell, just starting out in Hollywood, is relegated to a supporting role with limited screen time, but is nevertheless delightful. Fans of hers might want to give this one a look if it shows up on TCM. Otherwise...
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With great power must also come great responsibility
3 April 2015
I just watched THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979) for the first time and now I want everyone who hasn't seen THE CHINA SYNDROME to watch THE CHINA SYNDROME so I can talk to them about THE CHINA SYNDROME.

What a movie. Kept me interested throughout and on the edge of my seat for the thrilling final hour.

THE CHINA SYNDROME has a lot of cool things going for it. It does a great job of pulling back the curtain on broadcast news, showing the last-minute preparations before going on air, the multiple camera feeds, the teleprompter, and really capturing the whole artifice of television news. Very interesting stuff.

Then there's the major theme of ethics, with the big company sacrificing safety procedure (at a nuclear power plant, no less) in the interest of time and money. That's the thing that's frustrating to watch. After a near-miss at the nuclear plant, the suits in charge of the company rush through the investigation and sweep the story under the rug, concerned first and foremost with matters of business and public relations. When the control room supervisor (played brilliantly by Jack Lemmon) feels the need to be cautious and thoroughly examine the equipment before reactivating the generator, he is overruled by those in charge. Nuclear power plants have dangerous potential and Lemmon's character could not in good conscience let the generator run at full power until he was sure everything was okay. The powers that be didn't care and didn't listen to Lemmon's concerns. Grrrrr! How can (fictional) people BE like that?! Especially when the safety of a Pennsylvania-sized chunk of southern California is in your hands?

Interestingly, there's a point early in the film where the news station refuses to air footage that was recorded surreptitiously at the nuclear plant, citing ethical responsibility. The news station plays by the rules, even at the expense of a scoop, while the power company cuts corners and falsifies documentation in order to keep things running smoothly.

The film also has some great sequences of suspense and thrills. Conspiracies, henchmen, car chases, races against time, the forces of truth and corporate villainy battling it out. Lemmon's character confronts the man responsible for fudging the paperwork and finds his life in danger. He needs to give important testimony to make his opinions heard, but will he get the chance? Not if the men parked outside his house can help it.

Then there's the feminist arc of Jane Fonda's character. From the very first scene the film makes it clear that Fonda, an attractive woman reporter, is valued at the news station primarily for her looks. There's mention of her new hair color and how ratings have gone up because of her work on cutesy stories about zoo animals and singing telegrams. Fonda sees herself as a capable reporter and wants a chance to cover a real story, but her boss only wants her doing "what she does best". In classic sexist fashion Fonda is not taken as seriously as her male colleagues on the news team. She gets involved with the nuclear plant story by accident, but follows it through and proves what she can do. The final scene of the film shows a nice juxtaposition, with Fonda's reporter seen on one monitor, after covering the breaking news story like a pro, and a TV commercial of five stereotypical domestic housewives testing microwave ovens on the other.

The cast is great all around. Jack Lemmon really stands out in my mind, but Jane Fonda does a good job and Michael Douglas is great as the hot-headed cameraman. Wilford Brimley always seems to pop up in movies from this era and give terrific, down-to-earth performances. Here he plays Lemmon's buddy in the control room. I also want to mention that I couldn't decide if the plant worker at odds with Lemmon's character was Lawrence Tierney. It turns out he's Scott Brady, Tierney's brother.

THE CHINA SYNDROME delivers on many levels and is a thriller well worth seeing.
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Fast-paced fun with a delightful cast
2 April 2015
SING YOUR WORRIES AWAY (1942) is a fun little musical comedy bolstered by a great cast that includes vaudeville comedian Bert Lahr (best remembered as the Cowardly Lion in THE WIZARD OF OZ), eccentric dancer (and future Beverly Hillbilly) Buddy Ebsen, wisecracking sidekick extraordinaire Patsy Kelly, June Havoc (one-time "Baby June", sister of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee), "Thin Man" veteran Sam Levene, tough guy Morgan Conway, and stately Marx Bros. foil Margaret Dumont. The musical numbers are performed with great energy by Alvino Rey and His Orchestra and The King Sisters.

Bert Lahr is pretty funny with his signature shtick, and he and Patsy Kelly make a great pair. Lahr plays a struggling songwriter, with Kelly as the hat-check girl at a swanky night club. Buddy Ebsen gives an enjoyable comedic performance (with only minimal dancing) as the penniless quasi-psychic who comes to the night club to solve a murder, but stays when he becomes enamored with the pretty cigarette girl (Dorothy Lovett). The four become good friends and Lahr and Ebsen team up to promote Lahr's songwriting career. Meanwhile, knife-throwing club owner Sam Levene and his partner Morgan Conway scheme to swipe the family fortune Lahr and Lovett (distant cousins) don't realize they've inherited.

It's fast-paced, lightweight fun but the best thing about this film is June Havoc, who lights up the screen in a delightful comedic performance as Conway's glamorous sticky-fingered girlfriend. She oozes charisma and livens up the proceedings. She's got a beautiful face, which she puts to great use in this film in the name of comedy. She shows she's really got a knack for this kind of material. I've seen Havoc in a handful of other films (like the 1942 version of MY SISTER EILEEN), but I don't recall ever seeing her so animated.
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Panama Hattie (1942)
An interesting and entertaining mix of parts
1 April 2015
PANAMA HATTIE (1942) is two different movies, plotwise. One movie is about nightclub singer Hattie Maloney and her romance with a young soldier from a well-to-do Philadelphia family. The other film is a slapstick comedy about a trio of sailors on shore leave, with a penchant for catching spies. Juggling both, only tenuously connected plots in a 79-minute time frame means that neither story is properly developed. Conflicts are resolved easily and off-screen. And both stories give way to extended musical numbers, particularly at the end.

Despite its obvious weaknesses, PANAMA HATTIE is a very entertaining collection of parts. Red Skelton, Rags Ragland, and Ben Blue make a fine comedic team. The slapstick is pulled off well and the script is witty. Skelton's clowning shtick isn't too overbearing, as he is part of a trio (and the brains, no less). Ann Sothern impresses with her singing and Lena Horne is showcased in a couple of musical numbers with the dancing Berry Brothers.

Two favorites of mine, the offbeat "deadpan" singer Virginia O'Brien and the lovely Marsha Hunt, are welcome presences in the congenial ensemble. O'Brien shines in fun numbers like "Fresh as a Daisy" and "(Did I Get Stinkin') At the Savoy". Hunt's mildly antagonistic Philadelphia snob is a bit of a change of pace for her, and she has some great comedic moments opposite Skelton.

The film's finale becomes an interesting showcase of wartime patriotism, capped by the entire cast singing "The Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam" about bombing the Japs and Heinies right off their Axis and whatnot. There's a great line near the end. After convincing her to join the war effort, Skelton tells Hunt that he'll take her around the world after the war is over: "I'll even show you where Japan used to be."

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King Kong (1976)
Sadly, Kong spoils his own movie
11 March 2015
What sets this 1976 remake apart from other versions is that it is set in the then-contemporary 1970s, giving the story more of a modern-day feel, even today. Peter Jackson opted to set his 2005 epic during the 1930s, when the original classic was filmed. The retro setting is true to the original story and lends the film a sense of fairytale fantasy disconnect. KING KONG (1976) brings the adventure up-to-date, into the world right outside the viewers' windows.

Instead of location shooting for a Hollywood film, the crew in this version comes to the mysterious island on behalf of an oil company, led by Charles Grodin's opportunistic capitalist character. Jeff Bridges plays a hippie college scientist who stows away on the voyage for a chance to explore the island and its secrets. En route they rescue a beautiful blonde aspiring actress (Jessica Lange) from a shipwreck.

The contemporary update of the story works pretty well. The feeling of modern industry meets primitive jungle adventure reminds me a bit of JURASSIC PARK (1993), and the action in 1970s NYC by night calls to mind other films of the era (though I can only think of 1978's SUPERMAN). The original KING KONG (1933) was such a classic that it's fair to assume that audiences in 1976 knew what they were in for. Nobody was going to be surprised by the reveal of the giant gorilla, and the script has some fun early on with the knowing audience. (Lange mentions that her horoscope said she'd meet the "biggest person in her life". She wonders if it meant Charles Grodin.)

I kinda liked this movie until, and this is crucial, the appearance of Kong. In wide shots Kong is very obviously a man in an ape suit. He moves too much like a person, standing fully erect and walking around like he owns the joint. Initially he's got a very unfriendly "angry monster" face, but after spending some time with Jessica Lange he shows his "cute smiling" face. The design extremes are a little too much for me and the combination of ape suits and animatronics never manages to blend with the "realistic" feel of the island and city settings.

The human actors do a good job: Jeff Bridges as the long-haired, tree-hugging hero; Charles Grodin with mustache and sideburns, out to get rich any which way he can; Jessica Lange, in her screen debut, as the girl, gorgeous, but a little superficial; Rene Auberjonois as Grodin's scientific expert; John Randolph as the ship's captain. The stuff with the people, on the ship and on the island, is good. Unfortunately I couldn't take any of the scenes with the title character seriously.
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Of interest, perhaps, to football historians
10 March 2015
Comedy star Joe E. Brown is given very little to do in a secondary role in this lame college football quickie. Twenty-year-old Joan Bennett stars as the university president's daughter who uses her charms to attract football talent to Upton in order to beat the school's rival and save her father's job. As a kind of gimmick, the cast includes several real-life collegiate football stars, but seen eighty-plus years later all that remains is amateur acting in a weak script (although admittedly I'm more of a baseball guy). Doughy leading man James Hall stands out like a sore thumb as the "star quarterback" among a roster of actual athletes.
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