A Dismal Summer Under Predictable Stars.

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Play it again, Sam. And again and again and again and again…

Well, it’s August once again and it’s time for Turner Classic Movies to give us another “Summer Under The Stars” where each day of the month is devoted to a marathon of films featuring a particular star. This months schedule is chock full of depressingly predictable, near criminally bland offerings. Both in selection of stars and choices of movies for those stars. Seriously, why is there no Helen Hayes day(if you haven‘t seen My Son John, seek it the hell out at all costs, an epic Hayes performance)? Or Dean Jagger day? Or Claude Rains day? Or Richard Dix day? Or Arthur Kennedy day? Here’s a thought, how about Summer Under The Character Actors featuring James Gleason, Nat Pendleton, Agnes Moorehead, Aline MacMahon.

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Even Trog is sick of watching Trog.

Summer Under The Stars is a great idea on paper. It’s a great idea particularly for viewers new to TCM or especially those who are new to classic movies. However, for a long time TCM viewer, August’s SUTS can be a painfully boring  and repetitive experience. Look, I love Casablanca and Double Indemnity and Lassie Come Home as much as the next movie buff (I’ve got to the point where I can recite entire films dialogue). But when the viewer has seen those films more than a couple dozen times each, and see’s them shown throughout the year on TCM as many times, I start to get irritated. And when I get irritated I get crabby. I mean, I guess I should be grateful that the scheduling department for Summer Under The Stars didn’t come up with yet another excuse to show Logan’s Run and Trog for the eighty seven zillionth time.

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One of the less predictable bright spots in SUTS is Fay Wray Day

You have to have a mix for new viewers and longtime viewers who are sick to death of seeing the same thoughtless, uninspired, boring programming over and over and over and over and over. Sure, show the iconic stuff for half of the marathon but give us the more obscure stuff the other half of the day. There is still, believe it or not, a ton…A TON of obscure classic movies that TCM hasn’t shown in years. I’m still waiting for them to show Ice Palace(1960) again, the movie adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel. And I don’t know how long it was before they finally got around to showing Red Sun(1971).  And I’m not even talking about the films they don’t have or don’t have the rights to show for whatever reason. I’m talking about the films they do have that have been sitting in their library unaired for years.

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Lots of fun picks on Jean Harlow day, notably Bombshell and Beast Of the City

With all of this in mind, I’ve made a list of lesser known, less iconic films that haven’t been shown ad nauseam that are going to be shown during this month’s Summer Under The Stars. August 4 is Fay Wray day and this is probably the one day out of the entire month that is exempt from my above rant. Fay Wray day is full of pre-codes and obscure gems. My personal favorites are The Richest Girl In The World(1934). Miriam Hopkins is the star of the film, Wray plays her best friend. It’s a hilarious comedy about wealthy Hopkins having friend and personal assistant Wray pretend to be Hopkins to discourage fortune hunters. She continues the charade when she falls for cynical Joel McCrea. There’s also It Happened In Hollywood(1937) starring Richard Dix as a once popular, kind hearted western movie hero who falls on hard times while his former leading lady‘s(Fay Wray) star rises. This is one of those great “movies about Hollywood” movies.

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Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl is a bright pink mob violence filled extravaganza

August 5 is Karl Malden day. No surprises here but you might want to set aside All Fall Down(1962) with Warren Beatty as a drifter with a borderline incestuous mother(played brilliantly and disturbingly by Angela Lansbury). As a Jean Harlow fan, I have to recommend watching all of her films showing on August 7 but the two I would single out are Beast Of The City(1932) which is full of glorious pre-code violence and Bombshell(1933), another great “movie about Hollywood” with Harlow basically playing herself, a big movie star dealing with a leeching entourage of family and friends and a hilariously despicable agent(Lee Tracy). August 10 is Hedy Lamarr day and there are three good ones to single out. Crossroads(1942) and The Conspirators(1944) are two highly enjoyable spy/noir’s. There’s also H.M. Pulham Esq.(1941), an epic, poignant drama with Robert Young as a rich man’s son who tries to break free of family expectations and goes into marketing after WW1 with friends Arthur Kennedy and cynical business woman Lamarr. This one is a must see. It’s not often you see Time Bandits(1981) shown commercial free so that’s one of the better offerings on August 13’s Ralph Richardson day. August 14 is Cyd Charisse day and there are a couple fun offerings in East Side West Side(1949) about a woman(Stanwyck) and her philandering husband(James Mason) trying to rebuild a marriage that is put to the test when one of Mason’s more persistent ex lovers(Ava Gardner) turns up murdered.  This isn’t exactly a rarity on TCM but still worth a look for the terrific cast and the well written melodrama.

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Angela Lansbury takes “clingy mom” to a whole new level in All Fall Down

If there’s such a thing as bright pink, musical film noir then Party Girl(1958) would be at the forefront of the genre. A fun gangster film with Robert Taylor as lawyer to Lee J. Cobb’s psychotic crime lord. Cyd is the showgirl moll who does a lot of really pink dance numbers. Fun movie. I’m not quite sure who the star is for August 17 as I don’t see any one star consistently featured in the cast of those films being shown. All I know is they’re showing two outstanding films, one of Anthony Mann’s greatest and least talked about films, Men In War(1957). A taught, suspenseful war pic with Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray locked in a brilliantly acted battle of wills. There’s also Phil Karlson’s violence filled The Phenix City Story(1955), a documentary like story about exposing corruption in a small southern town.

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Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr in H.M. Pulham Esq.

I don’t know.  Maybe this feeling of repetitiveness in TCM scheduling is just in my head.  Maybe I’ve just lived too long and seen it all.  Maybe I need more bran in my diet.  Who knows.  All I know is that my TCM viewing has tapered off the last few years because every time I look at the schedule they’re showing a movie I’ve seen at least half a dozen times. Lastly, you do a Roddy McDowall day and you bypass such classic Roddy showcases as Legend Of Hell House, Curse Of The Golem and Evil Under The Sun and any one of the Planet Of The Apes films for Cleopatra?  A 4 hour film in which Roddy is on screen for roughly 30 minutes?  It’s a madhouse!!!  An incredibly repetitive MADHOUSE!!!

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Roddy taking a look at the TCM SUTS schedule.  I know, Roddy.  I know.

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Why Doctor Zaius Scares Me

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I first saw the 1968 movie Planet Of The Apes in the early 70s when it made its television debut on ABC. I was around 7 years old. The most adult films I had seen up to that point consisted mostly of Disney movies, Abbott and Costello and Hope And Crosby and the occasional horror movie on Sunday afternoon’s Sci-Fi/Horror Theater. The closest thing to a scary villain I had seen up to that point were those found in the old Batman TV show. And while I found the Universal Monsters films exciting and fun, I didn’t find any of the monsters all that scary as they were often portrayed as being somewhat sympathetic and misunderstood. Then came Doctor Zaius.

Dr. Zaius scared the living hell out of me. It was Dr. Zaius that introduced me to something I’d never heard of, read about or experienced before: conspiracy. I didn’t know at the time what a conspiracy was, obviously. All I knew was that there was a guy trapped on a planet of apes who was shot in the throat and couldn‘t talk, trying to convince people he was intelligent, unlike the other mute savage humans, and no one would listen. And when he finally convinced them all by actually talking and gaining the sympathies of two kind apes who believed in him, Dr. Zaius was there to bring it all crashing down on them by destroying all evidence of truth and those who dared speak it. I hated Zaius. It scared me how he convinced people to hate Taylor.  I hated that he had the power to destroy and undermine the hero, his friends and anyone who helped him. I had never seen anything like Zaius in all my 7 years. This was one damn scary ape.

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I remember the exact moment in the film when I realized that Zaius was bad. After Taylor is captured there’s a scene where he’s put in a cage outdoors. Zira is showing her fiancé Cornelius the unusual human she has named “Bright Eyes” when Dr. Zaius approaches them. I could tell right away that Zaius was the leader by the way Zira and Cornelius suddenly lowered their voices as he approached them. I recognized the body language of Zira and Cornelius as it wasn’t far off from my own when the school principal walked by. Taylor(Charlton Heston) is recovering from a gunshot wound to the throat and can’t speak. So he tries to get Zira’s attention by writing his name in the dirt. Unfortunately, Zira, Cornelius and Zaius are too involved in their conversation to notice. Then the mute girl Nova wipes away the words that Taylor has written and soon after that Taylor gets into a fight with one of the savage humans he’s caged up with. The gorillas break up the fight and haul Taylor back to his cell. Zira and Cornelius leave to go about their business and only Zaius is left. He goes to walk away but stops suddenly. He looks down and see’s several letters remaining from Taylor’s message.

It’s at this moment that I expected Zaius to be shocked. I was sure he’d see the letters, realize that one of the caged humans was intelligent and run off to do whatever I thought he should do. Tell someone, do something. But no. He simply scrapes away the words written in the dirt with his cane and walks away. I didn’t understand it. Why did he do that? I asked my parents but my Dad just smiled and said “keep watching”.  And Mom wasn’t any help to me at all. She was knitting and wasn’t even watching!  Knitting!

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It only got worse after that as I fell down the rabbit hole with poor Taylor. I was horrified right along with Taylor when, after making his desperate escape, he see’s his friend Dodge stuffed in a museum. I was shocked. I had high hopes that, at some point, Taylor would be reunited with his two astronaut friends. Well, at least there was a good chance that Landon was still alive. Right? I was so caught up by this point, so angry and scared for Taylor and his seemingly hopeless predicament that I was giddy with excitement when he speaks his first words of invective to the apes. That’s right! Get your stinking paws off him!

During Taylor’s trial, I still entertained hope that some how, some way, Taylor would win the day.  I mean, that’s what happened in movies. The hero wins. Taylor is shown a group of humans that were captured along with him at the hunt and spots his friend Landon. I wasn’t sure what the big scar on his head was all about. I was just happy to see he was still alive. But those hopes were dashed as I finally realized just how evil Dr. Zaius was. He had done something to Landon to make him just like all the other dumb savages. When Taylor looks up at Zaius and says “you did it”, I was sick with the hopeless resignation that Taylor was doomed. There was Zaius, standing up at the top of those stair thingies, looking down at Taylor.  Zaius was untouchable, triumphant and the hero was doomed. He even lied about doing that thing to Landon but I knew he did it. Nothing could stop Zaius. All the other apes seemed to believe everything he was saying as gospel truth. The few offering dissent were being destroyed.

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Yup, it wasn’t All The President’s Men or Three Days Of The Condor or Paralax View that introduced me to the idea of a darkness out there that could consume truth and justice and destroy those seeking to find it or offer it to others. It was Zaius. It wasn’t the Spanish Inquisition or Jim Jones or Jimmy Swaggart that introduced me to the concept of religious zealotry, it was Zaius. It wasn’t corrupt cops and politicians and godfathers that introduced me to the concept of corruption and insidious abuse of power, it was Zaius. Zaius’ villainy wasn’t informed by greed or insanity or a desire for power. He didn’t commit acts of evil in front of people but instead used their hate to normalize his evil.  When he first appeared on screen I even kind of liked him. Zaius, as brilliantly played by Maurice Evans, comes off at first as a somewhat charming authority figure. He didn’t twirl his mustache or dress in all black. Zaius wants to hide a truth and promote a lie. And if you try to stop him, well, he was lobotomizing people who pissed him off long before nurse Ratched. Zaius made me realize, for the first time ever, that the good guys might not win. Zaius scared the shit out of me.

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At the end, Taylor, Zira and Cornelius prove their case but Zaius wants none of it. He knows the truth, always did, and it makes no difference. Once again I was excited when Taylor gets the drop on Zaius and ties him to that rock on the beach at the films finale. But I wasn’t going to be fooled again. Taylor was outnumbered, he only had one gun and there was a whole planet of apes on Zaius side. It wasn’t fair, but that’s the way it was. Taylor only gets away because Zaius lets him. Zaius is sure that whatever horror is in the forbidden zone will consume Taylor and do Zaius’ dirty work for him. And ultimately he’s right.

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I would go on to become completely obsessed with Planet Of The Apes, the sequels and television series.  Over the years I’d learn to appreciate it’s commentary on society and humanity.  Most film buffs have that one movie that changes their life and begins them on the path of being a lover of movies rather than simply a watcher of movies. After watching Planet Of The Apes, I never looked at movies the same again. Planet of the Apes made me realize that movies can be unpredictable and thrilling and scary in ways I never knew they could before. I would never be scared by another movie villain the way that Zaius scared me. I would never hate a villain the way I hated Zaius. All other villains seemed tame compared to Zaius.  Over the years I even learned to respect and admire Zaius for the feelings he was able to elicit.  And as I got older I realized that Zaius’ evil wasn’t the evil of the man hating ape society, it was the evil of Man.  Zaius beliefs, seemingly innocuous on the surface but dark and complex the deeper one looked, informed his terrifying deeds. He was capable of anything.  He used the hatred of humans by his fellow apes as a mandate for evil.  Doctor Zaius was, to me, undoubtedly the scariest, greatest movie villain of all time.

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HERO AT LARGE AND THE AGE OF THE COMIC BOOK MOVIE

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Last weekend Avengers: Age Of Ultron hit the theaters to much fanfare. Superhero films are all the rage and contemporary filmgoers and comic book readers alike consider this to be the era of the comic book hero. And they would be right. Superhero films are breaking box office record after box office record with no end in sight in spite of film critics constant chicken little warnings of “superhero movie fatigue.” However, some folks might not be aware that over 3 decades ago Superheroes permeated film and television much as they do now. The main difference being that television networks and film studios back then resented comic heroes, didn’t take them seriously and even cancelled superhero shows with very impressive ratings purely because they were embarrassed to have them on their network.

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In the late 70s we saw the father of all superhero films, Superman The Movie, released to cheering audiences. I know this because I was there, cheering right along with the rest of them as Christopher Reeve scooped Margot Kidder up with one hand and a falling helicopter with the other. Several more Superman sequels were released soon after.

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You also had Bill Bixby finding ratings success on television as The Incredible Hulk. There was a live action Captain Marvel, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman series and a string of television movies featuring Doctor Strange and Captain America. Arriving on the coattails of this era of Superheroes was a small, low budget 1980 comedy called Hero At Large.

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Hero At Large came out long before the comic book writers and readers were obsessed with the premise “what if a regular person put on a costume and fought crime?” Mark Millar’s “Kick Ass” comic book series and film adaptations are based entirely on this premise.  However, in the Kick Ass comics and films, the average humans who put on costumes to fight crime perform superhuman feats that basically undermine its own premise.  Even in the Golden Age of comics, costumed heroes with no superpowers were written and drawn as if they did. Hero At Large, in spite of its many flaws, was really the first film to delve into this topic and the first to do so in a relatively realistic manner.

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By 1980 I was a hardcore comic book reader. I was intrigued by the idea of a regular guy putting on a costume to fight crime decades before it became a “thing.” I was also a fan of classic film. Most of the classic films I had watched by that point were the Hope and Crosby films, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, the Universal monster films and the occasional horror and Sci-Fi film. This was before VHS players were mainstream, before Turner Classic Movies and before we had a cable channel for every possible theme. Even Z Channel, ONTV and Select TV rarely showed 30’s and 40’s films. So there was a lot of classic films I had not yet seen. Meet John Doe was one of them.

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Hero At Large is basically a not so loose remake of Capra’s Meet John Doe. Hero At Large retains most of the relevant, entertaining elements of the Capra film. It’s just more amateurish in it’s execution. In Meet John Doe, Barbara Stanwyck is a idealistic reporter who transforms easy going bum Gary Cooper into an idealistic national hero whose idealism and popularity with the public is exploited by evil politician Edward Arnold. Now, obviously, Meet John Doe is a far superior film to Hero At Large. But it’s really interesting to see how Hero At Large incorporates the idea of the comic book hero into Capra’s theme of nationalism corrupted. I don’t think it’s all that surprising that comic book heroes are so popular in film now. Especially in a world full of corrupt leaders, acts of terrorism, war, high unemployment, etc., any more than it was surprising that films like Superman The Movie and Star Wars were so popular in the wake of the Viet Nam War and Watergate. Meet John Doe wasn’t any different given its themes and what was going on in the world when it was released. If you go to the wikipedia page for Meet John Doe you’ll see a comment by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Crowther says something that I think perfectly encapsulates the popularity of superhero films when he says “Mr. Capra has produced a film which is eloquent with affection for gentle people, for the plain, unimpressive little people who want reassurance and faith”.

 

In Hero At Large, John Ritter is perfectly cast as one of these “gentle people”. Ritter plays Steve Nichols, an idealistic rube from the midwest trying to make it as an actor in New York. Ritter plays Nichols with manic optimism that at times seems to mask a fear that he‘s really just kidding himself. As a kid, I only saw a funny, regular guy putting on a costume and trying to fight crime. But watching it with older eyes, you can see a few dark undercurrents here. Steve is lonely, he doesn’t have any real friends to speak of, he’s behind in his rent, broke and about to be evicted. He is turned down for almost every part he tries out for. When his next door neighbor Jolene Marsh(played by the always enjoyable Anne Archer) shows him the slightest interest he becomes a exuberant nuisance. I mean, really, Steve is just a few failures, a few bad decisions away from becoming a Travis Bickle or, more optimistically, Joe Buck. As if to drive that point home, there are a couple nods to Taxi Driver. Steve works part time as a cab driver and there’s a scene of cabbies hanging outside the Belmore Cafeteria. And the Mayor of New York is played by Leonard Harris who played Senator Palantine in Taxi Driver.

HERO AT LARGE, Anne Archer, John Ritter, 1980, (c) MGM

HERO AT LARGE, Anne Archer, John Ritter, 1980, (c) MGM

The one acting job that Steve does get is dressing up as comic book character Captain Avenger, traveling to theaters to promote a live action film adaptation of the comic hero. Steve happily wears his belief in the ideals of heroism on his sleeve but deep down we know that part of his love of the role of Captain Avenger is that he actually has a part to play for once. After an evening of promotion, still in costume and wearing a trench coat, he stops off at a local mom and pop market to buy some milk. Two street toughs come in to rob the place and Steve, imitating a scene from the Captain Avenger film, swoops in to foil the robbery. At first, he’s dying to talk about the incident to whoever will listen but he really doesn’t have anyone to tell. Meanwhile, the city is cheering the mysterious costumed vigilante.

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Anne Archer plays Steve’s neighbor Jolene Marsh. Jolene is an ambitious set designer dating her boss, a jerk who is the director of dog food commercials. She finds Steve mildly amusing but is put off by his inability to take no for an answer. Archer actually gives the film a connection, tenuous though it might be, to Superman The Movie as Archer did a screen test for the role of Lois Lane. It’s actually a great test and after seeing it I wish she had played the role instead of Margot Kidder. Archer is wonderful as the put upon career woman, stuck between a boyfriend//boss who treats her like crap and a manic neighbor nice guying her to the point of exhaustion. I like how Archer’s character dumps her jerky boyfriend, letting him know that he doesn’t own her and makes it crystal clear to Steve that she prefers a career to his needy, romantic inclinations. Archer really does a great job in this role that, well, really isn’t all that different from most of the roles she played in her heyday. That said, I am an unabashed fan of Archer.

HERO AT LARGE, Tony Cacciotti, Bert Convy, Harry Bellaver, John Ritter, 1980, (c) MGM

HERO AT LARGE, Tony Cacciotti, Bert Convy, Harry Bellaver, John Ritter, 1980, (c) MGM

When Steve’s luck continues to get worse, he falls back on the one empowering thing he has in his life: Captain Avenger. He listens to a police band radio while driving his cab dressed as Captain Avenger. He stops a couple drug dealers but realizes that he might be in over his head when he is shot by one of the criminals. Jolene, mildly turned on by his new wounded stray status, takes Steve in to her place to heal.  Meanwhile, oily PR man Walter Reeves(played by perfectly cast Bert Convy and basically doing the Edward Arnold role from Meet John Doe) is having trouble getting the Mayor reelected. He sees the growing popularity of Captain Avenger and sets about finding the vigilante in the hopes of exploiting his popularity to get the Mayor’s approval ratings up. He does find Steve eventually and seduces him with flowery speeches about the need for Captain Avenger and possibly being able to get him the role of Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. But Steve doesn’t feel right about it. That is until he becomes disillusioned after Jolene ends their brief attraction and a cynical reporter on television denigrates the idea of Captain Avenger and heroism itself. He takes Reeves up on his offer and foils a staged train robbery as Captain Avenger. Now he’s even more popular than ever but feels terrible about taking part in fooling the public.

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Hero At Large ends very much like Meet John Doe. Just as Cooper makes his speech about all the good of the movement he’s started, Steve makes a speech about how all people can be heroes and how, in spite of what happens to him, that it’s the idea of Captain Avenger, of every day people helping others, that matters more than anything. But the ruse is discovered and Steve is vilified during a public unmasking on “Captain Avenger Day”, an event Reeves uses to promote the Mayor’s campaign. Steve hits rock bottom and goes into hiding until he can leave town. But a burning building gives him a chance to redeem himself and restore the public’s faith in heroes. Ritter made Hero At Large at the height of his television popularity even if his film efforts in the 80s were dismal failures(although personally, I think the subversive, 1979 comedy Americathon is underrated). But in Hero At Large, Ritter is, I think, perfectly cast as the idealistic actor with just a tinge of insanity required to be a costumed vigilante or just to be an actor in New York.

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As a kid, I was seduced by the films Capra’esque idealism without even knowing who Capra was. Once I discovered Capra films, I was drawn to characters like Deeds and Doe and Smith because Capra’s heroes had that thing that I loved about comic book heroes. In a review of Hero At Large, film critic Roger Ebert called it “a big, dumb, silly, good-hearted albatross of a comedy”, and I think that’s a pretty spot on description. However, when it comes to comic book superhero movies, I think big, dumb, silly and good-hearted is a good thing. Hero At Large isn’t a great film but it’s a fun curiosity with loose ties to classic films(did I mention it also starred Kevin McCarthy and Kenneth Tobey?) and seems to have a new relevancy in this new age of superhero dominance in film and television.

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Bedtime Story vs Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Which film is funnier?

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In 1988 I went to the movies to see the hilarious comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Shortly after that I read a review for the film and learned that it was a remake of a 1964 film called Bedtime Story starring David Niven and Marlon Brando. Ever since then I tried in vain to find a copy of the film. It had become my white whale that I chased for years round perditions flames. Keep in mind that in the days before the internet became a big deal it was fairly difficult to find obscure movies. Even Turner Classic Movies never seemed to show this film. So, after nearly 3 decades, Bedtime Story finally turned up on YouTube.Dirty-Rotten-Scoundrels-DI

I think the elation I felt at finally being able to see this rarely seen film mixed with my decades long need to compare it with its 1988 remake helped to offset any disappointment that it wasn’t nearly as good as its 88 counterpart. However, it’s still a testament to the films inherently funny premise that the 88 version changes very little of the original script. And therein lies the entertainment value of Bedtime Story.

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Like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bedtime Story is about two con men. Lawrence Jameson (David Niven in the role that Michael Caine reprises) and Freddy Benson (Marlon Brando in the role that Steve Martin would reprise). Jameson is a classy con man who preys on rich married, morally ambiguous American women on vacation in the French Riviera by posing as a deposed prince trying to help his downtrodden people. Freddy is a crude but charming American who takes women for anything he can get ranging from a free meal to cash to sex(and on a good day, all three). Lawrence takes Freddy under his wing at first, teaching Freddy how to be a great con man. Then the two become rivals and try to out wit each other by seeing who can be the first to con an American woman named Janet (played by Shirley Jones and by Glenne Headley in the 88 remake) out of 25,000 dollars only to find out she‘s not rich at all but simply kind hearted.

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Unlike the 88 remake, the 64 film lets us see some of Freddy’s backstory by showing us his cons prior to meeting Lawrence. And some of them are pretty funny. Such as when Freddy gets caught using a tried and true con on a Burgermeister’s daughter. When confronted with his crime by his commanding officer, Freddy actually blackmails his commander by threatening to tell his commander’s superior that he runs a corrupt division even though Freddy is solely responsible for all of the corruption. The commander gives Freddy an honorable discharge and cash to keep quiet and then finds out that Freddy pulled the same con on his daughter that he did on the Burgermeister’s daughter!

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From that point on, the film is surprisingly similar to the 1988 remake and in some cases it’s almost a scene for scene remake with Freddy asking Lawrence to teach him, playing Lawrence’s mentally challenged brother to scare off female marks who want to marry Niven. It was so strange to see Niven and Brando play these parts. But it was especially strange to see Brando play a role that I’ve seen Steve Martin play on dozens of viewings. Both films also have almost the same exact dialogue as well.

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Along with getting some extra backstory for the Brando/Martin character, we also get a very different and far more traditional ending in the original film. Keep in mind that this is a 60s sex romp and full of the usual sexism of the time. The endings of such films usually had the man winning the woman, giving up their flirtatious ways in exchange for married bliss and a home in the suburbs. At the end of Bedtime Story, Brando wins Jones but bemoans the loss of his freedom as he has always feared marriage and commitment. Niven reflects thoughtfully that Brando might be the real winner as he is now married to a good woman. Then Niven see’s an attractive woman walk by and realizes that he might be the real winner after all. In Bedtime Story, Shirley Jones is simply a woman who is nothing more than a prize who is manipulated and tricked.

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels turns the sexism of Bedtime Story on it’s head by having Glenne Headley’s Janet turn out to be a notorious and renowned con woman on a scale that dwarfs even Lawrence’s high stake swindling. Janet turns out to have been on to Lawrence and Freddy from the very beginning and ends up conning them out of more than they tried to get from her. In a terrific and hilarious surprise twist at the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Freddy and Lawrence are recruited by Janet and we can easily see her being the brains of their newly formed operation. Even in scenes that both films share, Headley makes more of the role than Jones does. Headley has great timing and funny facial expressions and does a lot with what she’s given while Jones is generic and feels almost superfluous. Jones feels less like a character and more like a plot device. That’s not really the fault of Jones as she’s a great actress who can be very funny. Bedtime Story just doesn’t give Jones that chance. The ending of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the revelation of Janet being an empowered, clever con woman who is clearly smarter than either of her two male counterparts is one of the things that makes Dirty Rotten Scoundrels the superior film.

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The other thing is Steve Martin and Michael Caine. It’s clear that Martin owns this role. Brando is not a comedian and doesn’t have Martin’s magical comic timing but he is funny on occasion. But the true test is a scene for scene, comedic smack down where Brando/Martin is pretending to be paralyzed from the waist down and Niven/Caine tests the paralysis by whipping his legs and tickling his feet while Brando/Martin pretends not to feel it. It’s a scene that almost always has me in tears with laughter when watching Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Bedtime Story not so much. But Martin is just so brilliantly funny in the scene, along with Caine that it’s really no contest at all. The same scene in Bedtime Story is still sort of funny but it’s due more to the scene’s premise than to any comedic skill on the part of Niven or Brando.

Bedtime Story (1964)

When it comes to which film is funnier, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the clear winner hands down. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is clever, funny and is more comfortable and relaxed with it’s jokes making for a funnier payoff. Bedtime Story is a shorter film and gives more back story for Freddy which means not as much time is spent setting up the comedic scenes that both films have in common. This takes the edge off the effectiveness of the jokes and makes the comedy feel rushed and awkward.

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If you haven’t seen either film then you might find Bedtime Story quite funny. It’s surprisingly bold even by the standards of 60s bedroom comedies. Brando, even though he’s no comedian, has some fun scenes and Niven is always enjoyable as the Raffles-like con artist.

For a fun comparison, here’s a link to a trailer for Bedtime Story…

and here’s a link to the trailer for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels…

and here’s the link to the full film for BEDTIME STORY…

I’d love to hear thoughts on which film you like better so feel free to leave a comment.

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1967 IN FILM: SAMURAI REBELLION

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Most films I label “favorites” are either films that are just so good that they blew me away and remained indelibly imprinted on my psyche forever after or films that were all of the above but also had story elements that spoke to me and that I in some way could connect with on an emotional level. Samurai Rebellion falls into the latter of those two categories. It’s a film that has all of my favorite things: complexity, great acting, great story, intrigue, brinksmanship, confrontation between friends who are also rivals. And it has a lot of heart.

Samurai Rebellion is a film about conforming to societal norms. About people who do not want to rock the boat. Go along to get along. But it’s also a film about love. It’s not so much a run of the mill love story where lovers fight to stay together, although it has that too. It’s more about fighting to protect the idea of love in a world where genuine love is a rare commodity. It’s about people who know real love when they see it and are willing to do what it takes to keep the integrity of that love intact. Even if means rocking the boat. Or dying. As with most films that speak to me on a personal level, I can’t talk about the film without talking about myself. So I ask forgiveness now for any and all self indulgence and/or outright narcissism.

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I first saw Samurai Rebellion when I was in my thirties, engaged and soon to be married. But it was also at a time when several friends and family members were going through bitter divorces and struggling with failing relationships. I was happily in love with my soon to be wife but I was surrounded by cynicism and bitterness towards love and I was in my own personal battle not to let that bitterness and cynicism be infectious or negatively affect me or my relationship with my wife. So I was able to somewhat identify with Toshiro Mifune’s character who awakens from a stagnant life to protect true love while others around him are perfectly willing to let it die.

Mifune plays Isaburo, a henpecked Samurai who is on the eve of retirement. He holds a high rank in the clan and his family is one of the more respected families in the territory. The lord of the clan wants to marry off his former mistress to Isaburo’s son Yogoro(Go Kato). Seems the clan lords mistress Ichi(Yoko Tsukasa) is an out of control shrew who has become “troublesome”. Isaburo’s wife is outraged and makes no bones about it to the men of the family who seem resigned to go along with the forced marriage in order to not rock the boat. After much family debate and a whole lot of pressure from the clan higher ups, Yogoro marries Ichi.

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But to everyone’s surprise, Ichi turns out to be a loving, kind, honorable, humble, perfect wife. Which, to Isaburo, begs the question; why did she do the things she was accused of? Yogoro asks Ichi directly and discovers that Ichi was engaged to be married when she caught the eye of the clan lord who had decided that one heir wasn’t enough. Ichi refuses the clan lords proposal with clear disgust. So the clan lord, or rather his underlings, ask her if she’ll marry the clan lord if her fiancé agrees to bow out. Thinking this an impossibility, Ichi agrees. Of course her fiancé, afraid to go against the clan lord, breaks the engagement.

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Ichi bares the burden with honor in spite of her disgust. She vows to not only give the clan lord an heir, but many heirs so that her fate will never befall any other women like her. However, after she gives birth to a son, she is quickly replaced by another woman. This infuriates Ichi who attacks her smug replacement as well as the clan lord himself. But now, Ichi and Yogoro have genuinely fallen in love and she tells Yogoro that she wants to forget her past and commit to a new life with Yogoro and his family. Isaburo is deeply impressed by Tsukasa’s sense of honor and is inspired by her and his sons genuine love for each other and before long Isaburo is a grandfather to a new granddaughter, Tomi.

Then news comes that the clan lords first heir has died. His only other heir is the son he has by Ichi. Soon, the clan lords representatives come knocking on Isaburo’s door, telling him that Yogoro must give Ichi back to the clan lord! Isaburo, quietly outraged, tells his son and daughter in law that their love has changed his own stagnating life. He leaves the decision to his son, telling him that he will back him up one hundred percent. He also tells Ichi that, no matter what, she must continue to say that she wants to stay part of his family even if it means the complete destruction of the family. Isaburo knows that, in spite of their vehement disapproval, the family will ultimately unite behind Ichi.

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During a heated family meeting, Ichi is put under extreme pressure to return to the clan lord. She refuses. When the family storms out in anger over her decision, only Isaburo and Yogoro are left. But what neither Ichi nor Isaburo expect is for Yogoro to break under the pressure. In a moment of weakness, he says that Ichi should return to the clan lord. It’s a shocking moment that wounds Ichi to her very core. Isaburo angrily takes his son to task for giving in to family pressure and tells him that neither his family, nor anything that the clan lord could ever do to them is worth giving up on his and Ichi’s love. Isaburo tells them both that, after decades of enduring the death of honor at the hands of societal bureaucracy and his own loveless marriage, that Yogoro and Ichi’s love is now the only thing worth fighting for. Yogoro begs for and receives Ichi’s forgiveness for his moment of weakness.

But Isaburo’s wife is aggressively against keeping Ichi. Acting on her own(with the help of her younger son) she arranges for Ichi to be kidnapped and taken to the clan lord. Once there, she is pressured to remain but she refuses to play ball. The clan lords top men know that they at least need to pretend to follow societal conventions and continue to pressure both Isaburo and Yogoro into giving their verbal agreement to give up Ichi. They seek council from Isaburo’s friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai), the only Samurai whose skill and cunning rivals Isaburo’s. Tatewaki realizes that Isaburo is playing a political game of cat and mouse that mirrors his fighting style and gives the clan council a plan to counter Isaburo. But an outrageously audaciously worded formal letter from Isaburo to the clan council and clan lord turns the tables on all of them(a scene that I literally cheered out loud at), putting the council and clan lord in a corner with no choice left other than a full frontal assault on Isaburo and his son. An assault that ends up costing the clan lord and Isaburo more than either bargained for. It also leads to a confrontation between Isaburo and his best friend and rival tatewaki who, after years of avoiding dueling with each other out of mutual friendship, finally discover once and for all who is the better swordsman.

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This movie is awesome. I loved the intrigue and the relationships. It’s definitely not just another Samurai film although there are definitely some traditionally entertaining and rewarding Samurai film staples. But those moments are filled with great wit, suspense and poignancy. There’s one scene where a wet nurse for Isaburo’s grandchild comes in to see all the carpets in her masters house have disappeared. Mifune, in wonderfully deadpan “Mifune” style, informs the nurse that pulling up the carpets is a tradition, so that they don’t get stained with blood. There are other amusing scenes like this. In one scene, the representatives of the clan lord demand that Isaburo and his son commit ritual suicide. Isaburo tells them that he will agree if they give him the heads of the clan lord and the clan council in return. They decline. Samurai Rebellion is filmed in wide screen and beautifully photographed in black and white which gives the film a great gritty edge.  there are haunting moments of silence scored with traditional Japanese instruments.  Tsukasa gives just an outstanding performance as Ichi. Her scene where she gives her side of the story regarding her “reputation” is extremely touching emotional. As are all the scenes that she and Mifune have together.

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Over two decades after that first viewing of Samurai Rebellion, I watched the film again and once again it spoke to me personally. In the film, Mifune’s Isaburo must protect his granddaughter Tomi because by saving her, he saves the legend of Ichi and Yogoro’s love that they all fought and sacrificed so much for. By this time I had a granddaughter of my own whose world was turning upside down as my daughter was going through a divorce. It was a time when I was even more protective of my granddaughter than usual(if that’s possible). Films that touch us personally are the most fun to revisit as they elicit memories without bias. They can remind us of good times and bad but we never know for sure what emotions films will draw from us and that is always rewarding and surprising.  Samurai Rebellion has much in common with its non conformist, anti establishment peers of the time such as Hombre, Bonnie And Clyde and Cool Hand Luke.  Samurai Rebellion is timeless but definitely a product of the times and fits in rather nicely with the films of 1967.

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REVIEWS IN THE CAMPER: CAPTAIN AMERICA-THE WINTER SOLDIER

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I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the character Captain America. Not really love/hate but definitely love/want to love but often don’t. Cap, like Superman over at DC, is supposed to be more inspirational than your average, run of the mill superhero. I think I finally gave up on ever seeing Superman done right. Especially given that it hasn’t happened since Christopher Reeve portrayed him with humor, poignancy and quiet strength in Superman The Movie. Captain America in the comic books has always been hit or miss. But unlike Superman, Captain America has never been portrayed or looked up to as any kind of godlike figure. Captain America’s pedestal is nowhere near as high as Superman’s and that has always endeared me more to Steve Rogers than Clark Kent.

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This doesn’t make Cap any less heroic or any less inspirational. But his beliefs and ideals were forged by events that we as readers can identify with. Superman was never in a world war, never suffered through a great depression. Superman was never poor or unemployed or scared about the possibility of fascism dominating the world because in Superman’s world that could never happen(because, you know, he’s Superman). Superman can sympathize and empathize with these things, but he can never, ever identify with them. While some of Cap’s golden age tales are entertaining, he was never really fleshed out until Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought him back from the dead in the 60’s in Avengers #4. In that story, the Avengers discover Captain America, thought long dead since WW2, frozen in ice. Once revived, he struggles to find his place in a new era where his ideals seem quaint. Captain America’s power is to inspire others to feel how he feels about freedom, justice and love of country. This is where the new Captain America film and the performance of Chris Evans is most effective and evocative of Christopher Reeve in Superman The Movie.

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We never really got the chance to see the fall out of Captain America(Chris Evans) being thawed from his icy tomb and waking up almost 80 years later at the tail end of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER because he was immediately sent into action in THE AVENGERS. Here we see more of what it’s like for Cap being in a new world with new threats that are less foreign and less black and white and much more domestic and insidious. We also get one of Cap’s dearest comic book friends, Sam Wilson aka The Falcon(Anthony Mackie). Their quickly developing friendship and similar pasts as soldiers give them an instant kinship. Sam has quit soldiering to help returning vets having trouble integrating into civilian life. This helps Sam to understand and sympathize with Steve’s lonely displacement in time. One of the most enjoyable moments in the film is the final scene between Cap and Falcon in the hospital. It’s a moment that just defines the word Friendship and where the best elements of the comic book character are brought to life.

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Also returning are Avengers film alumni Nick Fury(Samuel Jackson) and Black Widow(Scarlet Johansson), both agents of SHIELD, which, as it turns out, has been infiltrated and corrupted by Cap’s old WW2 nemesis Hydra. Representing the villains is the return of Red Skull’s chief scientist Arnim Zola, now a disembodied brain with an electrical face in a massive computer. We also get one of Cap’s classic comic book foils, the French terrorist for hire, Batroc The Leaper. Also returning from the first film is British agent Peggy Carter(Hayley Atwill). Atwill is not in the film long, unfortunately, but she gives us one of the most poignant scenes in the film when Cap, visiting her bedside, expresses self doubt to his now elderly, former love. She gives him encouragement and then, due to age related dementia, forgets that they have been reunited and is shocked and disturbed to see her old flame seemingly returned from the dead and at her side.

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We also get Robert Redford as the head of the shadowy world council that we saw Nick Fury answering to and defying, in The Avengers. When it’s discovered that Hydra has infiltrated SHIELD, Nick Fury is almost killed and Cap, his image smeared, is forced to go rogue. Along with Black Widow and new pal The Falcon, Cap must bring down SHIELD in order to uncover the embedded Hydra organization bent on world domination. There are some great scenes here such as Cap and Fury disagreeing with how to deal with terror threats. Cap wants to err on the side of freedom and liberty, Fury on the side of keeping humanity safe, at any cost. When Fury tells Cap they need to destroy Hydra and save SHIELD, Cap tells Fury that SHIELD has become too rotten and must be taken down along with Hydra. A decision that doesn’t sit will with Fury. Meanwhile, Cap has trust issues with Black Widow and it’s enjoyable to see her try to earn his trust back after actions she’s committed that make it very difficult. There’s a nice scene where Widow asks Cap if he trusts her to save his life and we see a subtle look of hurt on Widow’s face when he pauses. But this is a Marvel film after all and, consequently, not without some wit and humor. Such as Widow’s various efforts to get Cap back in the dating game. There’s also a great action sequence where Fury, trapped in a SHIELD “company car”, is attacked by a Hydra hit squad that has more than a little trouble getting Fury out of his near indestructible vehicle.

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I have to say that Chris Evans is just terrific in his third outing as Cap(I was not a fan of this casting choice when Evans was first cast in the role but have since become a believer). While this movie is far different in tone and narrative than the first film, it makes a perfect companion piece. The first film showed Cap in a idealized, comic book past, fighting a more traditional comic book’ish villain in the Red Skull, anchored slightly in reality by Evans touching performance as a weakling with a heroic heart. That heart is tested in the future that he has awaken in where freedom has been eroded by paranoia and fear. But Cap, against all odds, rises to the challenge. There are moments that made me feel like I was watching Superman The Movie. Such as a scene where Cap gives a moving, patriotic speech in a final effort to reach any honest agents and soldiers in SHIELD that have not been corrupted by Hydra. The tonal change up from the first film to the second reminds me of the shifts from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis in Superman The Movie.

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This isn’t the spectacle that The Avengers was, but that’s good because we need the quite moments of character development to see Cap come to life as the hero he is. We need to see Fury’s myriad of necessary deceits and the cynicism of slick professional liar Black Widow melt and give way to Cap’s heartfelt determination to see freedom and justice win out. And we need to see the honest and wearily disillusioned ex soldier Sam Wilson become inspired once again by Captain America to defend the country he loves. Which isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have a more than fair share of incredible action sequences. It does. But when you get right down to it, it’s a film about a good man looking for friendship, his place in the world and fighting for freedom. This movie understands the character and gives us a Captain America at his heroic, comic book best.

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MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: THE TALL TARGET

Anthony Mann has definitely done some terrific films. Winchester 73, T-Men, Side Street, Men In War, The Furies and Border Incident are just some of the great films on his resume. Most are familiar with his film noir and westerns. But one film that I rarely hear mentioned when people discuss the films of Anthony Mann is the 1951 suspense thriller The Tall Target. I happened upon this movie about a year ago and from beginning to end I was on the edge of my seat.


The opening credits drew me in immediately, much the same way as I enjoyed the opening credits for Aldrich‘s Kiss Me Deadly. We get that same upward scrolling credit shot. There is no musical score and that works very much to the films advantage as the constant sounds of the train heightens the level of suspense. Especially in the credits sequence when all we see is the train station and it’s various sounds. The clanging bell, the steam, people milling about, it all feels like a metronome of impending doom.

William Powell desperately tries to prevent an assassination on board the Night Flyer

Powell is a police detective who once worked briefly with Abe Lincoln and realized immediately what a great man he was. So he is extremely worried about and motivated to prevent a plot that he’s uncovered to assassinate Lincoln. Powell boards the Night Flyer departing from Jersey and arriving in Baltimore where Abe is to give his inaugural address. The movie has a great cast of suspects. There’s the good natured officer, the young hot tempered Annapolis grad, his haughty southern bell sister and the servant girl with whom she has a very complex relationship, the boorish loudmouth who thinks Lincoln is a war monger that should be shot and the nosey novelist. Then there is the mysterious woman who demands that she and her party not be disturbed under any circumstances.

William Powell and Adolphe Menjou try to find an assassin on a train full of suspects in The Tall Target

The brains behind the conspiracy is revealed about halfway into the movie. I thought this might be a mistake at first, thinking that the suspense would start to wane with the enemy’s reveal but I was wrong. The enemy, like their plot, is layered and complex and their exposure is just the beginning of the real meat of the films suspense. The enemy proves to be a difficult one for Powell to beat. Powell’s job is made harder by the fact that his own credentials have been stolen(sort of) and his vocal concern about a possible assassination plots make him out to sound crazy to some, including his own superiors, all of which makes the game of cat and mouse all the more entertaining.

 
There’s a nail biting scene with Powell in a fight underneath a train that is about to depart, surrounded by the engines steam. The climax is also great as we get a terrific twist near the end. Just a very, very enjoyable movie. There’s also a neat scene with a shot through the train window of the capital dome being built. There’s also some great camera work and beautifully photographed scenes rich with texture, a trademark of many Anthony Mann films.

 
 
Just about the entire movie takes place on the train. I’ve always been partial to films that take place on trains. Murder On The Orient Express, North By Northwest, Silver Streak, Strangers On A Train, Terror By Night and The Great Train Robbery are among some of my favorites. The Tall Target belongs near the top of the list of fun train films and great movies in general and is definitely one of Mann’s more lesser known and underrated films.  Perhaps The Tall Target falls into a category all it’s own.  Period Train Noir, perhaps?  Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Tall Target on November 15 at 1:00 AM Eastern. Don’t miss it!

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THE WEB, THE RAVEN AND THE GENIUS OF VINCENT PRICE

I might not have always enjoyed all the films of Vincent Price but without a doubt, without hesitation, I have always enjoyed watching the performances of Vincent Price. He’s one of those film legends that made a huge impression on me as a child and, like Planet of the Apes, like the films of James Bond, like the Hope and Crosby “Road” films, like the Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes films, Vincent Price helped send me on my journey to developing a great passion for film. There are two Vincent Price films that had a big impact on me. Two films that I saw at two different points in my life. One as a kid, one as an adult.

The dream team: Karloff, Lorre and Price in the comedy horror classic The Raven

The first film was the horror/comedy classic The Raven. For me, this is unequivocally Vincent Price’s finest and most entertaining hour. This movie always makes me happy. Every moment that Price is on screen, which is practically every frame, is pure entertainment, pure enjoyment. I can’t remember the exact age I was when I first saw The Raven but it had to around 7 or 8 years old. I was young enough for it to scare me. It had everything a young boy would want: talking corpses, dungeons, attempted ax murder, grade A Peter Lorre snark, a sexy Hazel Court, the voice and the villainy of Boris Karloff facing off in an epic, hilarious sorcerers duel against Vincent Price. Using all available recall, I can’t remember seeing Price in anything before The Raven and I’m certain that I hadn’t seen him in anything where he was the villain. I do remember seeing The Pit And The Pendulum at a young age as well but after I had seen The Raven. I think this is important because it made my introduction to Price more along the lines of a kid being introduced to a cool Uncle, as opposed to if my first Price film would have been say Conqueror Worm.

 In The Raven, Price plays a character who is very insecure. He’s basically cut himself off from the community of sorcerers that his late father was very much a part of. He’s lonely and spends most of his time practicing magic and pining for his dead wife Lenore. He has a loving daughter who takes a back seat to her father’s mourning. Over the course of the film, he is scared, depressed, betrayed and nearly at the end of his rope, but he is never a coward and never without Price’s trademark manners and wit. He rises to the occasion and faces off against Karloff in a duel which captures what Price was all about for a kid my age. During the final confrontation between Price and Karloff, neither speaks hardly a word to each other and we only see facial expressions and, given that we’re talking about Karloff and Price, we don’t really need any more than that.



Jack Nicholson, Olive Sturgess, Hazel Court and Price in The Raven
 

Today, with almost 40 years of film watching behind me, I still enjoy watching and studying Price in The Raven. He plays such a sympathetic, likable, fun character that, even as a kid and without being able to articulate it, I identified with Price. I wanted to know him and be friends with him. Even though it was hard to match the pure enjoyment of The Raven, I continued to be entertained by the many Vincent Price films that followed. Even in films where he was the villain, he seemed to infuse his characters with the vulnerability of someone on the outside looking in which always made him likable on some level. I’m almost certain I would have been a fan of Vincent Price had The Raven not been my first exposure to him, but I can’t say for sure that the film or Price would have had as long lasting an impact on me.
 

About 20 years later I had become a full fledged fanatic for classic films. I had seen the best: Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind, Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, The Grand Illusion, etc. I was just beginning to get into film noir during this period. The AMC channel had just come out and was showing classic movies non stop and commercial free and I was in heaven. One of the first films I saw on the channel was the Vincent Price film noir The Web. While The Web might not rank up there with Murder My Sweet or Out Of The Past, it‘s still a really fun movie. At the time I wasn’t much aware of Price’s non period/non horror work and I found this movie highly entertaining. In The Web, Price plays a high powered businessman who commits a complex murder and then frames his bodyguard/lawyer(Edmond O’Brian) and personal assistant(Ella Rains)for the crime. Again, he was charismatic, witty, debonair and, of course, politely villainous.



Vincent Price lures Ella Raines into “The Web”

 What I’ve always found fascinating about Vincent Price is that you rarely see Price LOOKING mean or evil. He rarely gives you a scowl or angry look. That is to say, he’s not obvious about his villainy. He often has a look that says “am I really being all that evil? I’m not that bad, am I?” When his evil plans are foiled, Price usually has a look of mild concern or annoyance. When he’s about to kill someone, he often looks sorry about it. And you believe he just might be. Even when he’s trying to summon Satan or framing you for murder or has you strapped to a table with a giant razor edged pendulum above you. What makes Price so disarming in The Web is his chemistry with both O’Brien. There’s a great scene with O’Brien and Price playing poker and taking hypothetical jabs at each other. You really want them to be friends and hang out with each other and you’re kind of shocked at how easily he’s willing to destroy him as well as Raines. That’s the genius of Vincent Price.

 After watching The Web I developed a renewed interest in Price and attended a film retrospective and book signing for Lucy Chase Williams essential and informative resource The Films Of Vincent Price. Hazel Court was also there and it was a grand time listening to stories about Price and watching House On Haunted Hill, Return Of The Fly and The Masque Of The Red Death. The book only served to make me even more of a fan once I had read all those synopsis of Vincent Price films I had never seen and that, once discovered, went on to become favorites of mine such as Dragonwyck, The Baron Of Arizona and His Kind Of Woman.

Over the years, the more I learned about Price the more I liked him. There are still some Vincent Price films out there that I have never seen and continue to be on the lookout for. The knowledge that I have not seen all of his films, that I have more Vincent Price performances yet to discover thrills me just about as much as The Raven did 40 some years ago.

 

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REVIEW: ELYSIUM

I have to struggle to remember the last high concept sci-fi film that was any good.  They really are hard to come by these days. The ones that come immediately to mind are Gattaca, Moon, Primer and District 9. Good sci-fi films really are a lost art.  Failing to make it into that last catagory is Elysium. This is the newest film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. I very much enjoyed District 9. Elysium–not so much. It’s a pretty obvious movie with a none too subtle message about the have’s and have not’s. It has a couple of fun action sequences and great effects, but we know where the movie is going at all times.

4 guys tinkering in the garage in Primer(2004) ends up being far more chilling than anything in Elysium  

 
There are literally no surprises here so by the time we get to the films end, ultimately, it’s a complete waste of time. There is a good cast but they don’t really look like their hearts are in it. Except, that is, for Sharlto Copley who I think is terrifically entertaining in everything I’ve seen him in. Foster is really a wet blanket in this which is a shame because her performance in Spike Lee’s Inside Man was brilliant and showed that she could play a devious, mercenary character with charm, wit and complexity. Here she plays a one dimensional security guard with delusions of grandeur. Badly. She tries to hide it by speaking in French but it doesn’t work.

Matt Damon in Elysium

In the future, Earth is a cesspool and all the rich folks live on the luxury satellite Elysium. Jodie Foster is the satellites security chief who doesn’t have time for any niceties or criticism of her tactics. But say what you want, she keeps all those pesky poor and, in some cases, dying immigrants off the rich folks lawns. Matt Damon is a worker bee with a criminal past who is exposed to lethal radiation on the job thanks to a jerk of a boss (who isn’t completely dissimilar to one I had in the late 80s) and has five days to live.



Jodie Foster and a glass of water in Elysium

With nothing to lose, he goes to his old crime boss pal to try and score a ticket to Elysium where they have these cool healing machines that can cure just about everything short of death itself. Part of the price for that ticket is to kidnap a wealthy businessman and steal the information in his brain which includes codes to get into Elysium and other stuff that I didn‘t care about. To help Damon in his efforts, he is given an exoskeleton that enhances his strength that is literally screwed to his body. And not even with self tapping screws!  Just regular old machine screws!  Seriously?!

Sharlto Copley, angry at his two flunkies in Elysium

Unknown to Damon, the businessman they choose to kidnap has been hired by Foster to help her stage a coup of Elysium. When the info is downloaded into Damon’s head, Foster is determined to capture him and get the rather embarrassing info back and, after that, kill him. To accomplish this she needs the help of savage trouble shooter Sharlto Copley. But when Copley finds out what Damon has in his head, he decides that he also wants to use the info to take over Elysium. Meanwhile, in order to get some leverage against Damon, Copley has kidnapped Damon’s former love played by Alice Braga(here playing a character that is almost indistinguishable from her character in I Am Legend and every other part she‘s ever played). Turns out Braga also needs to get to Elysium so that she can get her dying daughter healed. It all ends in a climactic battle between Copley and Damon on Elysium.



Thurman and Hawke in Gattaca(1997). Scenes from films that are better than the one I’m actually reviewing are fun to look at, aren’t they?

Elysium is the second disappointing big budget sci fi film I’ve seen this year, the first being Oblivion. This movie is much better than Oblivion, mainly because Elysium doesn’t have Tom Cruise and does have Sharlto Copley. Copley’s over the top psycho mercenary “Kruger” is the highlight of the film. Whether he’s filled with panic while turning into a “Prawn” or playing the lunatic pilot Madman Murdock in The A-Team, Copley never fails to entertain. Unfortunately, even his exuberance can’t save the mundane Elysium.

You got a problem with that?

 

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REVIEW: PACIFIC RIM

 


It’s been a relatively disappointing season for blockbusters this year. So far at least. Iron Man was a bloated, incoherent mess that wasn’t nearly as clever as it thought it was. Lone Ranger had good intentions and tried really hard to be fun but never quite got there. Man Of Steel was bleak, languid, humorless and wallowed in the 911 imagery like it was a “money shot.” Star Trek: Into Darkness seemed obligatory, tired and played out. Oblivion, well, that was just plain dumb. Yup, it was looking pretty bad for blockbusters this year. The critics have been circling this years summer movie fare like hungry sharks waiting for a bucket of chum(or at the very least, a sacrificial lamb they can point to when it’s time to trot out the usual series of “are summer blockbusters an endangered species?” articles). Yes, I was getting pretty tired of this years blockbuster offerings. And so it was that I went in to see Pacific Rim, fully prepared to be nonplussed and disappointed at best and angry at yet another disappointment at worst. Yet I found myself smiling in spite of my preconceived notions. Even laughed a few times and eventually, marveled at a series of spectacular battles between giant robots and giant monsters.

One of the many giant creatures that plague humanity in Pacific Rim

 And that’s basically what Pacific Rim is about. Giant monsters vs. giant robots. A simple idea padded with humor, fun and a lot of heart. Giant monsters or “Kaiju”(think of a much more angry Cloverfield) have invaded earth through a fissure in the ocean floor and have done their darndest to destroy the world. The nations have put aside their differences and joined forces to build a bunch of giant robots or “Jaegers”(Iron Man meets Giant Robo meets Ultra Man) to destroy these creatures. The problem is that the creatures keep coming and each time they seem to get bigger and stronger and smarter. The Jaegers are controlled by a two person team of pilots who must join minds to operate the giant robots. Raleigh Becket(Charlie Hunnam) is a former Jaeger pilot whose career was ended after losing his co pilot in a battle with a Kaiju.

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi lead the “Jaeger” pilots in battle against the Kaiju in Pacific Rim

 Stacker Pentecost(Idris “Luther” Elba) is the commander in charge of the Jaeger program which is about to be de-funded by the world governments who favor building a giant wall to ward off the Kaiju. Mako Mori(Rinko Kikuchi) is Pentecost’s protégé who, as a little girl, was almost killed by a Kaiju and saved by Pentecost when the Jaeger program was still in its infancy and still had some dangerous kinks to work out. Then we have Charlie Day and Burn Gorman playing the comedy relief. Day and Gorman give us two types of “nutty professor.” Day is the young, green, nerdy scientist with the crazy ideas who thinks the Kaiju’s are cool. Gorman is the buttoned down tweed wearing Brit mathematician, certain that he’s right about everything. When the giant wall proves completely ineffectual, Pentecost pressures Raleigh to return to the Jaeger program for a last ditch effort to destroy the Kaiju. Raleigh’s new partner is Mako and both have demons and thoughts of revenge to overcome(or exploit) if they are to meld minds and control Raleigh’s old Jaeger, now restored and fully loaded.

Giant Robot battles a bad case of pink eye and inspires del Toro’s monster film Pacific Rim

 The film is clearly del Toro’s nostalgic tribute to all those old Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, Voyage Into Space and Gamera. The films characters are fairly one dimensional archetypes that seem pulled from all the endless sci-fi/fantasy anime films. Even things like Speed Racer came to mind. The battles between the Kaiju and Jaegers are straight out of Voyage Into Space aka Tokusatsu, aka Giant Robo, aka Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. We even get a new version of Giant Robot’s “Atomic Punch”(although “rocket elbow” just doesn’t sound as catchy). But there are problems with the film. Talent like Elba, Ron Perlman(hilarious as the head of the Kaiju black market) and Kikuchi(who steals every scene she’s in) make the bad actors stand out like sore thumbs. And there are some pretty bad actors in this. Luckily they aren’t called upon to do the heavy lifting here. That honor belongs to the epic Jaeger/Kaiju fist fights, the terrific special effects and del Toro’s unmistakable joy over the material which infuses the film with a sense of humor about itself and a big heart.

Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah just working some things out.  It’s a monster thing.

Pacific Rim isn’t the greatest movie ever made. It’s not even the best mindless summer blockbuster ever made. But unlike most of the big budget blockbusters we’ve gotten so far this year, Pacific Rim is one that I might actually go back and see a second time because it‘s just fun. It’s a sappy, silly film with elements of Starship Troopers and Real Steel and Transformers and it’s not nearly as inventive or as imaginative as del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.  Still, it’s an entertaining, popcorn crunching, monster/robot slugfest with a sense of humor and in a summer filled with blockbusters devoid of humor or heart, Pacific Rim makes for a nice change of pace.

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