Saturday, August 31, 2019

Hot Air (2019): A Review (Review #1271)

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I enter Hot Air with a bit of trepidation, the pun of the title making me wary given its central character is a conservative radio talk-show host. I needn't have worried. Hot Air isn't bad because it takes easy shots at conservatives in general.

It's bad because it's disjointed, unfunny and quite dry.

Fired Up host Lionel Macomb (Steve Coogan) rules the airwaves, though there is a pretender to the throne. It's his former protege Gareth Whitley (Skylar Astin), who has found religion and does conservative radio with a vaguely Christian bent on his increasingly popular show, The Way.

Lionel is a misanthrope par excellence, so he's none too pleased to see Tess (Taylor Russell). Tess is his niece and despite having had no contact with her uncle she has nowhere else to go. Her mom Laurie (Tina Benko) is in rehab so for the time being, with some urging of Lionel's girlfriend Val (Neve Campbell) and to avoid scandal as his contract is renegotiated, Lionel shelters her until Laurie finishes her stay.

Lionel's Number One nemesis is New York Senator Judith Montefiore-Salters (Judith Light) and her 'Clean Slate' Act that would allow children brought illegally to go to college without fear of arrest complete with scholarships if memory serves correct. As he despises and detests "Hyphen" (his pet name for the Senator), it makes a budding romance between Tess and Montefiore-Salters' aide Grayson (Pico Alexander) a bit of a conundrum.

Lionel agrees to a live sit-down television interview with Gareth and is surprisingly enraged himself doubly ambushed. Not only has Gareth invited Hyphen to join them (something he did not agree to) but Gareth exposes Lionel's troubled past, information gleamed from Grayson. Eventually though Lionel still manages to survive this fiasco, while Laurie, somewhat sober, helps Tess get to an exclusive prep school and Tess finds her uncle's heart has melted ever-so-slightly.

Image result for hot air movieHot Air is not without possibilities and you can see at least one story clawing desperately to get out. Therein however lies at least one problem with Hot Air: it has a lot of stories and characters that come and go hither and yon.

For example, early on we see Gennady (Declan Michael Laird), this young Russian Eurotrash who takes Tess to a club. After Lionel dresses them both down we never see Gennady again, making all this rather pointless. Stabs at comedy with other characters such as Lionel's on-again/off-again assistant Tyler (Griffin Newman) similarly fall flat because he too seems almost an afterthought.

Again and again things, people and plot points are introduced only to be dropped or forgotten. Lionel has a mug from Dinosaur Gardens, which the film suggests is his only happy childhood memory. The film hints that this might be his 'Rosebud', that element that could crack the mystery. However, while it's mentioned it doesn't lead anywhere.

When Tess first sees her uncle, she storms into his bedroom to find he's schtupping the maid to Night on Bald Mountain. It boggles the mind that he would cheat on Val given how good she is. It boggles the mind that Val would give someone like Lionel the time of day in any case. Despite Tess asking him once why does he cheat that plot point is never mentioned again.

As far as I remember we never hear or see Tess share her family's painful past with Grayson. In fact, I think they share one coffee and take pictures with Polaroids.

As a side note, I kept wondering where she got Polaroid film, but I digress.

A bigger problem in Hot Air is how shockingly disjointed it is. Within a minute we go from Lionel and Tess being snippy at each other to them and Val happily going off to a weekend at the sea? What the hell? It doesn't make any sense because the tone shifts so wildly and so quickly the viewer almost gets whiplash.

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It's surprising that one can get a good cast and have them give pretty lousy performances. Coogan was shockingly stiff and dull as Lionel. He seemed too controlled to be a firebrand and too deliberately hostile to make what was meant as a softening look real. Even the most rabid progressive would side with Lionel when he is ambushed on Gareth's show.

Astin came across as creepy than sincere. I can only guess that Gareth Whitley was meant to be creepy and insincere, like a simultaneously sweeter and more uncouth version of Tucker Carlson. Alexander, like Coogan, played Grayson as if he were a character as opposed to a person.

However, among the jumble that is Hot Air, we do have some light. Russell had some genuinely good moments as Tess, limited only by the script. Her confrontation with Laurie was quite good. Hopefully Russell will find better and stronger material to showcase her budding talent. Campbell too is unrecognizable as Val, the public relations guru who actually loves Lionel despite all logic.

I would rather have wished to see a film with them as the main characters, with maybe Tyler as the wacky sidekick.

Again, it isn't as if there isn't a good idea rattling around Hot Air. There's even a real moment of wit. After being harassed out of a public park movie screening one of Lionel's harassers shouts, "How do you sleep at night?" Without missing a beat Lionel retorts, "On a mattress stuffed with cash and the broken dreams of Hillary Clinton".

OK, that's funny.

Hot Air as it is now is sorely lacking: neither humorous or heartfelt. It's too dry, stiff, jumbled and filled with cliched characters and situations. It might have worked better with some tweaks: if for example Lionel were a liberal and Tess a conservative or if Lionel had vaguely human quirks such as a love of hockey or a passion for collecting bobbleheads. While Neve Campbell and Taylor Russell did good work (with Newman as an Honorable Mention), Hot Air is not funny no matter what your political leanings.


The Broken Mirror: A Review

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This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Kirk Douglas.

Kirk Douglas was once deeply ashamed of his Jewish heritage, sometimes claiming he was 'half-Jewish' in the naïve thinking that being 'half-Jewish' was not as bad as being fully Jewish. As he aged and after surviving a helicopter crash, he began to explore and ultimately embrace his Judaic heritage. His own private journey from shame to pride seeps its way to The Broken Mirror, a children's/young adult novella Douglas wrote at age 81, shortly before Douglas himself had a second bar mitzvah.

The Broken Mirror, although very brief and vaguely autobiographical, has the potential to make for a good play and primer to learn about one of history's greatest evils.

Munich, 1938. Little Moishe Neumann is fascinated by these strange marching men with flags of a crooked cross. His father Jacob and mother Leah (Tateh and Mameh to Moishe and his sister Rachel) are worried, particularly after Kristallnacht. They essentially hide out in the countryside, where they keep to themselves on a farm.

Moishe is devoted to his older sister Rachel and loves hearing fairy tales, particularly one about how Satan had a mirror that made everything beautiful look evil & ugly and vice-versa. Satan and his minions attempted to fly it up to Heaven to have God look upon it, but as they went higher it got heavier to where they couldn't hold it. Falling to Earth, the shards fell upon people's hearts and eyes, unleashing evil in the world.

Evil does come when the family is rounded up to an Italian concentration camp. Moishe is the only survivor, and now he no longer wishes to be Jewish. He adopts a new name, Danny, from the Roma (here called Gypsies) and is taken to an American Catholic orphanage. "Danny" is lost in this world until he makes an unlikely friend: Roy, a skinny kid cajoled into bullying him until Danny stood up to himself. Roy then looks on Danny as a hero for helping him and they become inseparable.

It isn't until Roy is adopted, leaving him alone again, that Danny finally breaks down and runs away. He ends up accidentally running to a synagogue and welcomed by the American rabbi that Moishe has metaphorically come home, the lights of the Sabbath leading him back.

Image result for child holocaust picturesThe Broken Mirror touches on one of the most monstrous aspects of an already monstrous episode in human history: how the Holocaust impacted the most vulnerable among us. A children's book cannot be graphic and it is to The Broken Mirror's credit that Douglas gives us just enough information in a simple manner that a child can feel great sadness for Moishe without having to learn some of the more horrific elements.

The voice is extremely well-done: Moishe comes across as very innocent but after he survives his imprisonment not bitter but shell-shocked, confused and alone. His decision to abandon his Judaism both spiritually and ethnically are understandable, making his return more impactful.

The overt symbolism of the evil mirror's shards making people cold and uncaring with Moishe's own experiences works well in this children's story. Douglas uses symbolism effectively both with the fairy story of 'the broken mirror' to that of the Sabbath lights leading Moishe back to a loving home reminiscent of what he lost in Germany. Moishe's goodness comes through, along with his confusion about America and slow embrace of baseball and stronger embrace of Roy.

As I read The Broken Mirror, I found that it might work well as a play geared towards children. Save for Rachel and her boyfriend David's death we do not see anything that could be traumatic for children. I think children could identify with Moishe, who sees a world of wonder until it grows dark, then how he survives to find the light again. A play adaptation might need to work out some things such as expanding the story of his time at the orphanage, but on the whole the source material is there to create a stage version that would work well for children without delving into much more somber elements.

The Broken Mirror makes for fast reading, coming in at less than 90 pages. Douglas obviously was not a Holocaust survivor but the book does in a sense show his own evolution from rejecting his Jewish heritage to being passionate about it. Douglas, like Moishe, went through his own journey to find the Sabbath lights lead him home.

The Broken Mirror is brief, well-written with a story that ends with hope, all positives in a world forever close to plunging itself into darkness.


Friday, August 30, 2019

The Conqueror (1956): A Review (Review #1270)


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Susan Hayward.

Few films have become as notorious as The Conqueror, the biopic of Genghis Khan. From the wildly miscast performers to shooting on a nuclear test site that is thought to have led to various deaths, The Conqueror became infamous for being such a disaster that its powerful yet reclusive producer Howard Hughes pulled it from circulation for decades. The Conqueror routinely finds itself listed among the worst films ever made, but does it merit said reputation?

The Conqueror is a bad film, but despite what has been said the fault does not lie in its stars alone.

Temujin (John Wayne) is a mighty Mongol warrior who comes upon the beautiful Tartar princess Bortai (Susan Hayward). Instantly in lust with her, he leads a raiding party to capture our fiery Tartar tart despite the misgivings of his brother Jamuga (Pedro Armendariz) and their mother Hunlun (Agnes Moorehead).

Bortai will not submit to Temujin, making him more desirous, but war comes first. He forms an alliance with his half-brother Wang Khan (Thomas Gomez) against the Tartars, but Temujin is betrayed. Despite this, he is still defiant and somewhere along the line Bortai has fallen in love with the Mongolian chieftain. With Temujin now having succeeded in both escaping the Tartars and taking Wang Khan's throne and his capital of Urga, he now leads one final push to begin his reign as Genghis Khan, Bortai now at his side.

Image result for the conqueror movieNo one is safe in The Conqueror, as massive a misfire in the annals of cinematic history as can be found. Bless Dick Powell, former song-and-dance man turned film noir antihero, for at least having an eye for detail visually. The costumes and sets, dressed up with sand imported from their outdoor shooting location in St. George, Utah, did bring a certain authenticity to things.

One also perhaps should give grudging credit to Powell for having some good action sequences.

Apart from that, Powell's directing ranged from comical to merely inept.

You have a highly talented and skilled cast, but everyone in The Conqueror looks so hilariously bad it might have been better for them to have embraced this as so much B-movie camp.

One does not need to look further than John Wayne as the Asian warlord. One watches his performance almost in awe, amazed that Wayne or Powell thought the former (and latter to be honest) was anything other than embarrassing himself. What possessed either of them to attempt to make his eyes more 'Asian'? As if this yellowface routine wasn't already deeply disgraceful for all concerned, Wayne delivered his lines in some oddball cadence, almost as if he had discovered English.

Then again, to be fair there is probably no actor who could make Oscar Millard's screenplay sound remotely human. It's a running game to find what line is the most laughable and/or cringe-inducing. "Make haste, cretin. The Tartar wench awaits you!" would test the dramatic skills of any actor. No one will ever be able to deliver the line "You're beautiful in your wrath!" with any sense of reality.
Add clunkers like this to Wayne's speech pattern and there is no saving things.

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Again and again Millard's screenplay dooms every actor caught in its cross-hairs. Susan Hayward is an exceptionally talented actress, but her forte was in downtrodden women who struggled and sometimes survived. The idea of this redhead as a Tartar princess goes beyond believability, but she too is forced to utter such nonsense as "I am consumed with want of him". She apparently was directed to be a bit of a camp vamp in The Conqueror. One genuinely does not know whether she is trying to be serious or opted to go for some avant-garde gonzo acting style that tried to separate her from the film itself.

It's a sad thing when the most sensible thing Bortai does is a danse erotique at Wang Khan's palace as part of an elaborate dance number that has nothing to do with the plot but is the most entertaining part of The Conqueror. It's actually the only entertaining part if you attempt to watch it without a sense of humor about the wild goings-on. It's also Hayward's only good moment, showing she's quite able to cut a little rug before slinging swords at monarchs.

Armendariz and Moorehead too cannot escape the tawdry dialogue, though somehow the script's stubbornness in having everyone address someone as "My Brother" or "My Mother" when speaking to them as opposed to about them is enough to drive the viewer batty.

You do have to constantly suppress howls of laughter at lines like those or this one said by her father when Tamurjin swears vengeance: "Already the Mongol whelp whines!". As bad as Powell's directing is, as bad as the performances are, it's the script that is so shockingly inept and inert that you could have cast the Royal Shakespeare All-Stars and still had a disaster.

Related imageOne final point on Millard's script. Either I was falling asleep or I missed something because The Conqueror never seems to establish whether Jamuga really was a traitor or just kept finding himself in the wrong place and time. More bizarrely, he serves as closing narrator despite requesting to be executed, though again it's never fully established if it was because he was a traitor or just perceived as one.

If there is anything good in The Conqueror, it is Victor Young's score. I think Young is vastly underappreciated compared to a Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North or John Williams. It's a terrible shame since The Conqueror's score is quite good. Its Love Theme is beautiful and the music for the big dance numbers is quite impressive.

As this is a film review, the stories of how The Conqueror led to various cast and crew deaths due to shooting downwind from a nuclear test site is not relevant. However, the various deaths from a host of cancers that claimed many lives takes away from whatever camp pleasure one gets from the film; of the many cast and crew members  Powell, Wayne, Hayward, Moorehead, John Hoyt (who played a Shaman and imperial adviser) and Armendariz (who committed suicide when he learned his cancer was terminal) succumbed to cancer which may have been triggered by the location shooting taking place so close to a nuclear fallout site. And those are the well-known victims.

Divorced from the tragedies that potentially claimed lives, The Conqueror would be remembered as a disaster in and of itself. Its cast had no chance with such a leaden script, but the performances did not help in making it any better. In so many ways, The Conqueror is a bad Wrath of Khan.

Circa 1162-1227


Thursday, August 29, 2019

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Paul Lukas.

I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and fell in love with the book, though Jules Verne did keep going on about the minutia of fish. Pages and pages about fish to where after a while I skipped all those pesky pescatarian descriptions and moved on to the actual story. It's to where I remember the Disney film adaptation more than the book, apart from all those fish. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a brilliant film and a personal favorite, mixing adventure and humor with some strong thoughts about the state of man.

It's 1868 and the world is captivated by stories of a 'sea monster' roaming the oceans and taking down many ships. Some sailors believe these fish stories but others don't. French Professor Aronnax (Lukas) is willing to keep an open mind, but his assistant Consiel (Peter Lorre) is more dubious. They, however, agree to go on a U.S. Naval expedition to search, with the government bringing another passenger, Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), a master harpooner.

They do find 'the monster' that does take down the ship, but the three survivors discover that it is not a living thing. Instead, it is something unheard of: a submarine craft called the Nautilus, where Captain Nemo (James Mason) rules unquestioned. Nemo is impressed by Professor Aronnax but dismissive of Consiel and especially Land, who goes out of his way to antagonize him.

Aronnax is conflicted: fascinated by the technological advances Nemo has uncovered particularly when it comes to the seas but appalled at Nemo's hatred towards humanity and ease with which he sinks ships and kills men. Land and Consiel join forces to find someone to rescue them, leading to a fiery conclusion for all involved.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea balances family-friendly action/adventure with surprising intellect and even some humor and comedy. Children can find amusement at the double-act of Land and Consiel or the hijinks with Nemo's pet seal Esmeralda. Adults can think on the morality of Nemo's actions, on whether he was right or wrong or even a mix, a question that Aronnax keeps going back to.

Visually it is breathtaking, with its two Academy Awards in Set Design and Visual Effects more than worthy. Looking at it now at times some of the effects may be a bit dated, but in other respects 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea astonishes. A climatic fight with a massive squid is thrilling, and while the Nautilus may be a model, it's a damn good one. It looks so real that one would have thought Walt Disney had built an entire submarine and then sent them to his theme parks.

We also get breathtakingly beautiful underwater images when the Nautilus crew explores and even cultivates the ocean depths for food. The sets too, particularly the Nautilus interior, are also elegant.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea allows for a surprisingly light side to Kirk Douglas. Douglas was not known for comedy or light entertainment but in the film he's quite adept at being charming, even funny. Douglas' Land is still an action lead: fighting physically and verbally with nearly everyone, especially Nemo. At times he does come close to letting his all-out anger erupt.

Image result for 20 000 leagues under the sea movie sealHowever, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea also allows Douglas to have a little fun. His scenes with the pet seal are a delight, showing Douglas as a bit of a lovable scamp. Douglas even belts out a delightful tune, A Whale of A Tale, showing a nice and rarely tapped comic manner with a humorous song.

Douglas also works well with Lorre, who like Douglas would seem an odd choice for such a family project. However, with his sad eyes and meek manner Lorre was equally delightful as Consiel, doing what he thought right for the Professor even when the Professor didn't think so. He and Douglas make a wonderful double-act, down to adopting a routine where Ned would mess what hair Consiel had one way only to have Consiel return it to how it was when Ned left.

Lukas was the moral and intellectual center of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so his Aronnax had to be a little more on the serious and stoic side. Professor Aronnax was not about to burst into A Whale of A Tale anytime soon. However, Lukas' role was just as important as the action star Douglas or the somewhat comic relief of Lorre. He is where the audience should be: simultaneously fascinated and appalled by Nemo's actions. At times Aronnax seems to think the Sun rises and falls on Nemo, while at other times he cannot accept Nemo's indifference to individual lives. Like Nemo, Aronnax is an intellectual, but unlike Nemo he has a code that will not bend.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may be James Mason's best-known role. It is also I think one of his finest as the mad Captain Nemo, one who is in turns snobbish but wise. He berates Ned for going after treasure when they were sent to find food on a sunken island, noting that genuine treasure is "a sound mind and a full belly".  Mason's Nemo is in turns genius, elegant and completely bonkers. He brings Nemo's rage along with his passion and wisdom for the ocean. It is a fully-formed performance.

It is a massive credit to director Richard Fleischer that despite the episodic nature of the film he kept things flowing well and got great performances out of his cast. Paul Smith's score is eerie and haunting, echoing the otherEarl Felton's adaptation also managed to keep things flowing despite a two-hour running time. In hindsight one of Ned Land's lines as he attempts to escape a sinking Nautilus could have been revisited.

"Let me out of this glory hole!" Ned shouts. AY DIOS MIO!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of my favorite films, and I am so happy I got a chance to revisit an old friend. It is A Whale of a Tale, fun, exciting, a bit funny and never failing to thrill and entertain.


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Executive Suite (1954): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Fan. Today's star is June Allyson.

An all-star cast holds court in Executive Suite, where backroom boardroom politics and machinations take center stage. Executive Suite is a well-acted, well-paced film that holds your attention to the strong finish.

Avery Bullard, president of the Treadway Furniture Company, drops dead suddenly on a Friday. His death comes just as he has called an impromptu board meeting where he will appoint an executive vice-president. However, as there is no official successor the new president will have to be elected from among the current Treadway board members.

One board member, Loren Shaw (Fredric March) sees himself as the new president. He is driven purely by numbers, charts and profit/loss margins. Other board members have their own agendas. Bullard's BFF/right-hand man Fredrick Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) has been undercut by Shaw. Shaw also finds that another board member, Walt Dudley (Paul Douglas) has been schtupping his secretary Miss Bardeman (Shelley Winters). He does not directly blackmail Dudley but Shaw does know how to apply pressure.

Another board member, Caswell (Louis Calhern) witnesses Bullard's death and sells his stock at a profit, but now finds himself figuratively and literally indebted to Shaw. Only board member/production head Don Walling (William Holden) seems immune from Shaw's power, but he has no interest in taking leadership. Don's wife Mary (Allyson) flips back and forth between urging him to take power and retreating from it.

There's a wild card in the succession crisis: Julia Treadway (Barbara Stanwyck), the founder's daughter who owns enough shares to make her the only female board member, though her mental stability and romantic past with Bullard makes her an uncertain vote. With no genuine rival to Shaw but no enthusiasm for him either, all these various elements play to see who succeeds to the presidency.

Image result for executive suite movieExecutive Suite is a surprisingly taut tale of the wheeling-and-dealing that goes on in high finance. While it gives us characters who are mostly villains and mostly heroes, the film does not go over-the-top with either. It is filled with exceptional actors at the top of their various games, each giving very strong performances.

Shaw is a pretty reprehensible man, but he also has a cold logic to his thinking. As he sees it, his job is to increase profits and nothing more. The quality of the product, the effect to employee morale or employment, and anything close to human emotion is irrelevant to him.

Executive Suite is, as I understand it, the rare villain in Fredric March's career, and he is masterful as Shaw, forever wiping his hands when doing something shady. He is never overtly evil but it is in his cold-blooded manner, his thinking only of cost that makes him the emblem of indifferent capitalism.

Opposing him is Holden as the more idealistic and moral Walling. Holden has a bravura monologue at the end of Executive Suite, where he makes his impassioned case that business should be more than just numbers and decimals on a ledger page. It should be about pride and quality of work, about enriching people in all aspects of their lives beyond the stockholders' accounts.

Stanwyck excels at playing bonkers beautifully as Julia, troubled, suicidal, but also with a spark of hope within her. Winters' Eva, the lovelorn mistress, evolves into a woman who has the strength to end their affair, especially after Walt won't stand up to Shaw when he forces his way into Walt's love-nest. "Get yourself another aspirin tablet," she quietly and sadly tells Walt as a farewell, her acknowledging that she is nothing more than a comfort to him.

Pidgeon's moral outrage and honesty works well against Douglas' essentially decent but unfaithful and weak Walt. Calhern's sleazy Caswell, a man who keeps his own good-time girl waiting at the bar while he desperately seeks out confirmation that it was Bullard he saw drop dead also does good work.

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The popularity of June Allyson has always escaped me. To me she has a foghorn voice, isn't attractive and never impressed me with her acting. My only real memory of Allyson is of this raspy-voiced woman telling me to "GET BACK INTO LIFE!" with Depend adult diapers.

To my shame those commercials still send me into fits of laughter. I also can admit that perhaps Allyson was a better actress than I gave her credit for. As Mary, she is supportive but also active in shaping her husband's mindset. She even has a bit of comedy when playing catch with their son Mike (Tim Considine). Allyson may not have been my cup of tea in musicals, but stripped from any cutesy manner she manages to more than hold her own against a cavalcade of powerhouse players.

Executive Suite is still relevant about the power plays involved in high finance, and it might be worth remaking. It is a well-acted film that showcases a variety of performers very well, adeptly directed by Robert Wise with a screenplay by Ernest Lehman. The back-and-forth among those in "The Tower" makes for a strong, fascinating film.


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Fanatic (2019): A Review


The Fanatic goes beyond inept clichés and generally illogical storytelling. The Fanatic may be the worst film in human history. I've said this about only two movies: The Green Hornet and The Hangover Part II. Now I use it for The Fanatic.

This is the biggest pile of shit I have ever seen.

Horror/action movie fan Moose (John Travolta) is a massive fan of action star Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). He's seen all his movies, even the bad ones. He's even managed to get a jacket Dunbar wore in one of them at a discount! Moose crashes a Hollywood party in hopes of meeting Dunbar and even getting an autograph thanks to Leah (Ana Golja), a paparazzi with a soft spot for Moose.

Many people have a soft spot for Moose, catering to this man-child's very eccentric fixations. However, just as he is finally about to meet Dunbar at a book signing Dunbar's personal life gets in the way and he doesn't sign Moose's book and jacket (odd because as I understood it, Moose had been told earlier Dunbar would sign only books).

Moose, who makes a living dressing up as a British policeman on Sunset Boulevard, insists he's not a stalker. For a non-stalker, Moose does do certain stalker-like things such as download an app to find Dunbar's home, hassle him while he's with his son, break into his house at least twice, brush his teeth with Dunbar's toothbrush, hide under his son's bed when Dunbar and his son are there, and kiss a sleeping Dunbar on the forehead (and take a selfie of him doing so).

Oh, did I mention that at the second break-in Moose, albeit accidentally, kill Dunbar's maid Dora (Marta Gonzalez Rodin)?

Moose cannot comprehend why Dunbar would not be receptive to let alone threaten his number one fan, and his sense of disillusionment is so great he breaks into Dunbar's house again, where Dunbar wakes up to find himself tied up with this certifiably insane man reenacting movie serial killers in front of him. Dunbar manages to talk Moose into untying him, wherein Dunbar fights back. However, in the end Moose manages to leave with only the loss of his fingers and an eye, while Dunbar is arrested for murdering Dora, who apparently was left dead in the yard for a couple of days without anyone noticing.

Image result for the fanatic movieThe Fanatic was co-written, co-produced and directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, so perhaps that may color people's views on the film's quality (it should be noted that in the film, Dunbar is a Limp Bizkit fan). As I am unfamiliar with his work outside the ubiquitous Nookie, I go into this with a pretty blank slate. I would say that with this film Durst is not making a case for an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award, but given how oddball they've been of late I wouldn't put it past them to try.

As a film, The Fanatic is a hateful piece of trash, revolting, nasty, having nothing to say on a very serious topic. I may walk back that last statement, as The Fanatic may be making a case that somehow Moose is at the very least a victim rather than a villain. Perhaps Durst was saying that Moose was so childlike in his worldview that as he sees an unresponsive Dora lying there he would genuinely think she was still alive and think the blood was the result of a nosebleed.

Durst really pushes this effort to sympathize with Moose by having a flashback to him as a child watching Night of the Living Dead while his trampy mother was entertaining a gentleman caller. However, Moose's behavior and general demeanor suggests a man who is in turns mentally disabled and genuinely homicidal.

As he pushes back against the taunts of his frenemy, street magician/thief Todd (Jacob Grodnik), Moose starts strangling him and shouts the following in his childlike voice, "I wish Freddy Kruger would come and chop off your head and it would roll in the street and a truck would squish it and the blood would splatter everywhere and everyone would watch it!"

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This suggests a grown man who is in many ways still a child, but a child with homicidal tendencies. Even more outlandish is that the Security Guard (Jeff Chase) who witnesses this tells the very disturbed Moose that he's actually proud of him for what he just saw!

Over and over again people who genuinely should know better and who would find Moose as insufferable as the viewer treat him as some kind of lost innocent. Leah, ostensibly the most sane person in Moose's universe, berates him for posting his selfie of him kissing Dunbar 'on social media' (which I figure is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or a combination). She points out, correctly, that this has slipped into criminal behavior, but at the end in voiceover she says Moose took his injuries as a badge of honor.

As a side note, as Dunbar was asleep while Moose gave him a little kiss on the forehead, I should point out that Moose did not get Dunbar's consent, making this 'problematic'. Moreover, whether Moose's fandom slipped into erotic desire is open to interpretation.

If Moose did indeed post a picture of himself kissing a star's forehead for the world to see, why does it not attract any actual attention? Moreover, why doesn't Leah actually report Moose to the police? He's clearly a threat to Dunbar, but she seems to brush it off as "Moose Being Moose". The film's opening voiceover tells us "Moose is unbreakable". No, Moose is nuts, divorced from reality and a danger to himself and others. He may also be mentally challenged, but one is not connected to the other unless The Fanatic wants to go that route.

Even more outlandishly, Dunbar of all people has no sense. Having managed to fool this incredibly dumb and dangerous man into untying him, all he does is shoot off Moose's fingers and stab his eye, then bandages his hand and lets him go! At this point, any person would have shot Moose straight in his head and called the police, but then no one appears to have any sense in The Fanatic.

Image result for the fanatic movieJohn Travolta has suffered enough in his life and career to have The Fanatic on his résumé. He may actually have outdone his performance in Battlefield Earth to find something more grotesque. Travolta plays Moose as a mental child (his idea of a threat is to block Leah on 'social media') and a complete nutjob. Moose is so obviously socially inept to completely bonkers one wonders why he is allowed to roam freely. Durst and Travolta never bothered to give Moose any subtlety.

I don't know Devon Sawa outside his Tiger Beat covers, and for some reason I keep pronouncing his name as "Dewon Sawa". To his credit Sawa is probably the best thing in The Fanatic and it seems surprising he hasn't had a bigger career. Granted, in those scenes of his 'movies' there's a falseness that makes one wonder how Hunter Dunbar became a star, but when confronting his stalker or doing his best to be a good father Sawa does quite well. I would have preferred seeing a movie about Hunter Dunbar attempting to balance his professional and personal life over what we got.

The film also does have surprisingly good cinematography and quite a solid score.

The Fanatic is like watching a feature-length film of Eminem's Stan, down to where at one point we see Moose writing a Stan-like letter with everything but Dido singing in the background. At the very beginning I asked myself if Moose's real name was Stan. Why it does what it does I can't begin to imagine. The Fanatic is just an ugly, ugly film, one that I deeply regret sitting through.

The online screener kept losing the picture, which I should have taken as a sign; contrary to what Moose kept shouting (even at the end), he most definitely was a stalker.


Three Godfathers (1936): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Walter Brennan.

Three Godfathers had already been filmed three times before this version: two silent film versions in 1916 and 1919 and a sound version in 1930. The 1919 version was titled Marked Men and directed by John Ford, who would go on to make the fifth and as of this writing final version in 1948. The 1930 version, titled Hell's Heroes, was made by another up-and-coming director: William Wyler. This penultimate version of Three Godfathers stands on its own merits, a touching and moving film about finding redemption in the most innocent among us.

Three bandits go to the Western town of New Jerusalem to rob a bank. There's the intellectual "Doc" (Lewis Stone), the more rustic and less educated "Gus" (Walter Brennan) and Robert 'Bob' Sangster (Chester Morris), who is from New Jerusalem.

Bob has no interest in anyone but himself, and while the townsfolk welcome Doc and Gus to the town's Christmas celebrations, they are wary of Bob. None is more wary than his old flame Molly (Irene Hervey), who still struggles with her conflicting emotions. The bank robbed, the three flee to the desert, where to their surprise they encounter a dying woman and her infant. Bob would rather leave the child to his own devices, but Doc and Gus insist on taking him along.

Their horses have drunk poisoned water and now they are forced to return to the closest town: New Jerusalem. Doc and Gus take the infant with them, while Bob goes due to his own necessity. As age, injury and thirst overtake each one at a time, it's up to Bob to make the most fateful of decisions: leave the baby to die or take him to town and risk his own life and freedom.

Image result for three godfathers 1936Three Godfathers has some wonderful performances from all three of said godfathers. Edward E. Paramore, Jr. and Manuel Seff's adaptation of Peter Kyne's novel gives each godfather a distinct personality. It does more than that: it gives each of them characteristics that may not usually be associated with the Wild West.

Take Doc for example. Despite his bandit ways Doc is an intellectual, a college graduate and literate man who loves and quotes Shakespeare and Schopenhauer. It may surprise people to see Judge Hardy as a bandit, but Lewis Stone uses his age, voice and manners to make Doc a very unique Western character. We get hints that he may be a dying man already: he has a stubborn cough and was shot during the robbery. This suggests that Doc is fully aware that he won't make it, and that saving this baby may be the only good thing he may ever do.

As Bob, Gus and the baby leave, Doc movingly quotes Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" monologue. That alone is enough to elicit a tear or two, but hearing the gunshot punctuates the sacrifice he made.

He and Brennan make a wonderful double-act, with Gus as this simple man who may be dumb in terms of knowledge but who like Doc ultimately knows right from wrong. He cannot read and thinks Doc's Schopenhauer book is a collection of jokes, but Brennan gives Gus a simplicity and almost sweetness that makes him lovable. His almost shy manner with the schoolmarm at the town Christmas feast is sweet.

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Moreover, knowing that he too will most likely die, especially given that they are low on water and milk for the baby, Gus recites a simple prayer before walking into the desert. We don't see Brennan's face as he calls upon the Lord for his soul, but in Brennan's soft delivery, the audience is deeply moved.

I think Morris may have been a bit over-dramatic as Bob, but he was meant to be cold and hard. I did not quite feel that he genuinely evolved but on the whole it was not a bad performance. He was simultaneously funny and creepy when giving a fake story about his mother. "Did your mother die?", a concerned man asked. "No, not from the fall, but she broke her leg and I had to shoot her," is his reply. He was better at playing bad than at playing good, but to his credit he did similarly move me when he finally manages to get the baby to safety at the church.

As a side note, having him framed below a crown of thorns at the end was perhaps a bit too much, but I can forgive that.

In small roles both Hervey and Dorothy Tree as Blackie, the dance hall girl with a heart of gold, did well. Curiously, Morris would become best known for the Boston Blackie film series.

Director Richard Boleslawski managed to have a lot of elements in Three Godfathers. There was touching drama at the end, when Molly reproaches a man for insinuating that the dead Bob had stolen a woman's watch found on him. "That watch belonged to his mother," Molly says despite her knowing it's not true. There was some comedy with a dentist plying his trade and a more risque moment with Bob and Blackie.

As the saloon reopened (closing for the town social) Bob tells Blackie as they dance together that he danced at the social but it got him nowhere, at which point the screen fades to black. We can only guess at what occurred.

Three Godfathers is a surprisingly touching film about how even bad men can do good things. A film that should be better-known despite being in the shadow of the 1948 John Ford version, it more than stands on its own.


Monday, August 26, 2019

Blinded By The Light (2019): A Review (Review #1265)

Image result for blinded by the lightBLINDED BY THE LIGHT

I am not the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan, and to be frank I know more than a few people who find him uninteresting. He does have his passionate fans who think him a modern-day Bard, so perhaps one's enjoyment of Blinded by the Light may depend on the level of love one has for The Boss. The film has been hailed as a delightful romp. I found it apart from its charming lead a very eye-rolling experience, full of cliches and more groan-inducing than heartwarming.

Javed Khan (Viviek Kalra) is a young Pakistani-Briton living in the dark days of Margaret Thatcher's Britain. It is 1987 and Javed yearns to leave his town of Lufton for the bright lights of, well, anywhere else. An aspiring writer, he chronicles his world in endless journals and poetry bemoaning that Thatcher, Reagan or nuclear weapons exist, as each is the source of all evil in the world.

Oddly, Javed's poetry and lyrics reflecting his woke worldview don't mesh well with his BFF Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), who thinks 'synths are the future' and who aspires to be part of the New Wave in the a-ha/A Flock of Seagulls/Pet Shop Boys mold. Javed also faces hardship from his immigrant father Malek (Kulvinder Ghir), who wants his only son to put away dreams of writing to something more sensible. "Keep away from the girls and follow the Jews!" is his advise.

Isolated, he finds an unlikely ally in Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh who has a great passion: an American singer/songwriter named Bruce Springsteen. After a particularly frustrating night Javed pops in Roops' borrowed cassettes and he has a revelation with Dancing in the Dark and The Promised Land.

Bruce Springsteen, this working-class American from New Jersey, literally 'sings his life' (a little Morrissey dig there). With the Sage of Asbury Park as his guru, Javed now can overcome the objections of his traditional family to be among the literary giants. He can also get the girl, the pretty political firebrand Eliza (Nell Williams). However, there are still racists to fight, parents to educate and a journey to New Jersey to worship at the High Temple of Bruce before Javed sees that maybe his father is more complex than he first thought.

Image result for blinded by the light movieUp to a point I can understand, even empathize, with Javed. We're both children of immigrants who struggle between honoring them and pushing away from their old world views to our own thinking. We also have perhaps quoted singers almost as Holy Scripture (mine being Moz). However, unlike Blinded by the Light's Javed, I was never so doctrinaire that I actually substituted Morrissey's musings for esoteric wisdom, let alone look down on those who did not worship The Pope of Mope.

I'm puzzled as to why Javed is being embraced as some kind of wonderful person given that Blinded by the Light showcases him as a near-total jerk. When he tells Roops about Eliza, Roops' first question is "Does she like Bruce?", to which Javed responds that she doesn't yet but is working on it.

This sounds more like a cult than music appreciation.

At another point he ridicules Matt's musical tastes with a little help from Matt's father and very belatedly seems to feel even a twinge of remorse for humiliating the only person who pre-Bruce showed him genuine kindness and affection. Worse, as much as Blinded by the Light wants me to side with Javed over Matt, Malik and the Khans in general, I kept siding with them over him.

I sided against Javed and Roops when they broke into the school studio and played Born to Run over the loudspeaker, making their lack of punishment for this vandalism almost obscene. I sided against Javed when he openly mocked Matt's musical dreams and tastes. I sided against Javed at a climatic moment when he confronts his father.

After Mr. Khan survives an assault on their way to one of Javed's sister's wedding, Javed reproaches his father for his lack of understanding about Javed's dreams and wishes. He pulls out two tickets to an upcoming Springsteen concert for which he paid £40. The film obviously wants me to rally to Javed, to see this as a strike for his own independence and individuality against the stifling world of Lufton and the Khan home.

However, as directed by co-screenwriter Gurinder Chadra, Mr. Khan ends up looking right and Javed wrong. Mr. Khan has just survived getting punched in the face by skinheads. He has come back from a wedding that must have cost a lot of money, especially given that he is unemployed and has been unsuccessful in finding a job. They are in deep financial crisis and here is his son, telling him that not only has he gotten paid for his writing (contrary to what Javed had told them) but that he used his pay, all £40 pounds, for two tickets to a show Mr. Khan will not let his still-17 year old go to.

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Malik has been assaulted, is close to financial ruin and now has to be lectured by his son who both lied and is apparently frivolous with money, spending it on 'this American Jew'. As a side note, apparently, Chadra and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Burges & Sarfraz Manzoor (whose memoir inspired the film) thought a running gag about how Mr. Khan kept thinking it was "Springstein" was hilarious. I can't answer for others but if I had been Mr. Khan I would have reacted the same way.

As if all that was not bad enough, if you didn't see what would ultimately end up happening to the tickets then you have never seen a movie before.

Blinded by the Light is hopelessly and unbearably cliche in how it treats situations and people. It has no sense of subtlety or restraint that it becomes maddening. When, for example, Javed goes to Eliza's house for dinner, her parents are portrayed in such a cartoonish fashion for a moment I thought her father was Basil Fawlty. We had Javed's writing teacher Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell), who was equally ridiculous.

Image result for blinded by the light movieShe was ridiculous in her irrelevant Thatcher-bashing, throwing it out there that "Thanks to Maggie Thatcher there won't be enough jobs" when first meeting her students. She was also ridiculous in her ebullient praise of Javed's poetry. I think Rabindranath Tagore got less praise for his poetry than Javed Khan did. The film pushes this great idea that Javed is some kind of literary revelation but to be honest I don't think we got to see or read much if any of his own writings. It makes it hard to accept this endless parade of praise for Javed being the new Voice of His Generation if we keep substituting Springsteen's voice for his own.

As Blinded by the Light is pretty cliched and unoriginal most of the performances were too. Williams' Eliza was not exactly a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but she was close, her only real defining characteristic being her almost insufferable political lecturing. Chapman's Matt was pretty much forgotten for long stretches where he could have been written out. I thought well of Ghir as Mr. Malek, but thought that the 'pig-headed immigrant father' bit has been done before. I had flashbacks to East is East, or at least what little I can remember of it, while watching Blinded by the Light.

The film's only saving grace is Viviek Kalra as Javed. He has not only a delightful face but a great range, playing Javed's discovery of the miracle that is Darkness on the Edge of Town with the same conviction with which he speaks to an assembly about recognizing his own father and Bruce's father weren't that much different. Whether delighting in the freedom of Born to Run or seeing his younger sister find her own free space Kalra was excellent.

The music is good. I like but don't love Springsteen and only now realize he co-wrote Because the Night, which I associate more with Patti Smith and 10,000 Maniacs. Ultimately, with apologies to Bruce, a more accurate title should be Blanded by the Light.


Fiesta (1947): A Review

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FIESTA (1947)

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Mary Astor.

The mind boggles at the thought of Esther Williams as a toreadora, let alone a Hispanic female toreador. To a point I get that Fiesta is meant as a colorful romp through Old Mexico so I can get past a lot. However, even without the wild miscasting I would still find Fiesta a bit 'problematic' if not weak.

Retired matador Antonio Morales (Fortunio Bonanova) is displeased when his wife (Mary Astor) gives birth to a daughter, but his displeasure is mitigated by immediately producing a male twin. The children named Maria (Esther Williams) and Mario (Ricardo Montalban) grow up with various expectations. For Mario, it is to take to the bullfighting ring despite his passion for music. For Maria, it's to find a husband despite her passion and skill for bullfighting. Don Antonio focuses his training on Mario but coolly tolerates his right-hand man Chato (Akim Tamiroff) training Maria.

As a surprise birthday gift, Maria has sent Mario's composition, Fantasia Mexicana, to Mexico City Symphony conductor and instructor Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) for evaluation. Don Antonio has no knowledge of this and is too wrapped up in his son's bullfighting debut, pausing only to show contempt for Maria's boyfriend Pepe (John Carroll), a medical student whose career Don Antonio finds idiotic.

Complications ensue when at his debut, Mario finds his father withheld Contreras' pleas to study with him. Mario flees the bullring in disgust which is mistaken for cowardice. Maria decides to help find Mario in her own way: by impersonating Mario in the bullring. More complications and hilarity ensue until everyone gets what they seek and Don Antonio comes around.

Image result for fiesta 1947Again, I do understand that Fiesta is not meant to be taken seriously, but the film forces one to think on how idiotic the premise alone is. The idea that anyone would be fooled by Maria doing a little gender-bending as 'Mario' is utter nonsense. Didn't anyone notice how 'Mario' has on some lipstick? There's a whole lot of impossibles going on around here and Fiesta could have done better if it had opted to not make Mario's disappearance so exaggerated.

Again, I also have to consider that only in the alternate universe of MGM would Esther Williams, Mary Astor, John Carroll, Cyd Charisse and Akim Tamiroff possibly pass as Mexican. Bonanova was a Spaniard so at least he was close, with only Montalban as the actual Mexican. In 1947 the notion of having Mexicans or at least Hispanics play Hispanics parts was a stretch (though to be fair it is still a stretch in 2019). However, one might wonder why almost none of them have accents and/or seem to struggle with the few Spanish words they do speak.

For an Esther Williams vehicle Fiesta is more interested in Montalban. It makes sense given that this was American film debut, and the film made much use of his dancing skills. It didn't make much use of his acting for it was a weak performance. His reaction to hearing Fantasia Mexicana on the radio is particularly weak.

Image result for fiesta 1947Williams did not do any better, and had only the most basic and obligatory swimming scene. I think she gave it a good effort but I found her terribly unconvincing throughout. Bonanova played his one-dimensional role one dimensionally, as did Astor. She probably suffered the worst script-wise as she was called upon to be nothing more than the passive and generally quiet mother to Bonanova's blustery, macho, sexist husband.

To be fair Fiesta does show why Astor was considered the ideal screen mother, displaying a patience, compassion and understanding of her children that their father did not have. However, I am still troubled that we essentially have these awful stereotypes about Mexicans: the men with their chauvinism, their stubbornness, their intense pushing of their children, the women who are passive.

Tamiroff, who despite being Armenian was Hollywood's default Mexican, was probably the best as Chato, who grew to be genuinely fond of Maria while remaining loyal to Don Antonio. His efforts to hide the cross-dressing from everyone is a highlight of Fiesta.

The film's plot is probably weak because the film is more interested in the bright colors and beautiful music of Mexico than in anything else. The film adapted Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico for Fantasia Mexicana, and it's a credit to both the film and Copland's genius that the music captures the sounds of Mexico so well. It is bathed in bright colors and wonderful music, and to be fair the dance between Montalban and Charisse was a highlight.

As a side note, it wasn't until this dance number that I realized it was Cyd Charisse, her distinct dancing immediately noticeable.

Fiesta is not particularly good or logical, but its bright colors and music make you forgive a lot.


Sunday, August 25, 2019

John and Mary: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Dustin Hoffman.

Once the one-night stand is done, you have the morning after. Who is this person sleeping next to me? What are the new rules on post-coitus interaction between strangers? John and Mary attempted to ride the wave of modern love with its tale of our accidental lovers and how they brought their separate pasts into bed with them. It isn't without possibilities, and would make for both a good play and time capsule of its time.

It is also a bit slow and slightly pretentious but not in a terrible way.

It is morning, and a woman is waking up to a man whom she had sex with but whom she also does not know. John and Mary casually slips between past and present as our Man and Woman talk, have breakfast and lunch while contemplating whether to stay for dinner.

Over the course of the film we learn that The Woman is a married man's mistress. She has gone on vacations with her lover James (Michael Tolan) but discreetly slips away from the plane both were on. The Woman waits and gives him what free time he can spare for their trysts. She also lives in an apartment building with a cinema verite director, three Japanese men and in her own flat two other girlfriends with their own relationship issues.

The Man meanwhile shows that he is a fan of music (classical in the morning, jazz in the afternoon he tells The Woman). A furniture designer, he has just ended a relationship with fashion model Ruth (Sunny Griffin) who just moved out of his apartment in what appears an amicable split. She called to invite him to a party, but he seems to want to spend time with The Woman instead.

Then again, neither The Man or The Woman seem to decide what they want. The Woman leaves, but not before leaving her number on his mirror. The Man wipes it clean but then rushes to the neighborhood she said she lived in to find her. After fruitlessly searching for her, The Man returns to find The Woman cooking dinner.

They go back to bed where they finally learn each other's names: John (Dustin Hoffman) and Mary (Mia Farrow).

Image result for john and mary 1969As I watched John and Mary, my main thought was that this, with some tweaking, would make for a good play. Essentially what we have is a two-person show, with the flashbacks casually flowing through. We even get a lot of internal dialogue where we hear what they are thinking. On the stage one could make those into asides to the audience without interrupting the flow.

John Mortimer, who later would create Rumpole of the Bailey, adapted Mervyn Jones' novel. It does seem rather curious to give the veddy English Mortimer the task of adapting a story of swinging 1960's youth. It's almost as if Mortimer were examining an alien world of square hippies who talk about Jean-Luc Godard's Week End in the same way they talk about eggs.

As a side note, the counterculture protesters at James' political event looked and sounded so square you expected them to start shouting "Nixon's The One!"

I think one of Mortimer and director Peter Yates' mistakes was in sticking too close to the novel, or at least to what I imagine was John and Mary's structure never having read the book. In a book, we can flow easily from past to present, hear internal thoughts and have them end by asking each other's names before having sex again. In a film, it strains the imagination to see them go on this nearly-endless date and have it go exactly as it did.

Also, we sometimes wonder what Mortimer and Yates (both of whom were Englishmen) really thought of these young Americans. "To Hell with equality of the sexes! I'm going to cook for you!" Ruth tells John. As could be expected, our fashionista makes a right mess of it despite John being a master chef.

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Hoffman and Farrow seem an unlikely choice for our lovers. Hoffman was 32 when he made John and Mary, making it look a bit odd to paint him as the symbol of vibrant youth. Granted, he was only two years removed from The Graduate but now it looks a bit peculiar. Farrow is pretty and she does well as Mary but she does not convince me that she is either a liberated woman or a put-upon mistress.

Their backstories don't seem all that interesting, though to be fair John's memories of his activist mother might now elicit chuckles. We see that John's mother was too busy to make lunches for him, spending more time on the intense and hard-fought campaign to make Alaska a state.

It's not a joke: his flashbacks include her leading protests with a banner that reads "Make Alaska A State". Now that we're a half-century past that controversial turning point the idea this would cause street demonstrations seems almost quaint. It does however, allow us to see Olympia Dukakis in an early role as John's mother. Also keep an eye out for Tyne Daly as Hillary, one of Mary's roommates.

John and Mary is a nice time capsule capturing the changing mores and values of late 1960's America, where one-night stands and the uncomfortable morning after are openly discussed. It, I think, would still make for a better play than film but on the whole it is not a bad film.


Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Children's Hour: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Shirley MacLaine.

The Children's Hour is a remake of These Three, with the nature of the relationship between the two female characters more overt than in the original. Despite having the same director for both versions and a slew of competent actors, The Children's Hour seems a dry affair, stilted and almost too mannered to be real.

Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) run a girls school, with Martha's wacky Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins) doing something there to. Karen is engaged to Dr. Joseph Cardin (James Garner) but she keeps putting off getting married until the Dobie-Wright School is in the black.

Things finally appear to be going that way when Dr. Cardin's young cousin Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin) continues making trouble for her teachers. In a pique of anger about being punished for lying yet again Mary runs away, but when her Grandmother Amelia (Fay Bainter) takes her back, Mary takes bits and pieces of information she saw and overheard to suggest that Martha and Karen are lovers.

Mrs. Tilford, horrified at the suggestion, quickly pulls Mary out of school, which causes a chain reaction of more students fleeing this den of iniquity. When Martha, Karen and Joe all learn the lurid rumors, they confront Mary but this blows up in their faces when Rosalie Wells (Veronica Cartwright) appears to corroborate that Martha and Karen have indulged in "sinful sexual knowledge of one another".

Their reputations and careers ruined, Martha finally admits to Karen her greatest fear/secret: that it's all true and she is in love with Karen. Karen won't countenance such things, but she has also driven Joe away. The fact that Rosalie has recanted after admitting she was being blackmailed by Mary does not help matters. Martha, now unable to go back into the closet, hangs herself in shame. Karen, devastated by all this, walks away from this town without pity with her head held high.

Image result for the children's hour 1961By the time The Children's Hour was released in 1961 the subject of homosexuality could now be if not openly seen/heard at least be more frank. These Three papered over Lilian Hellman's original plot by literally making Martha straight and having a love triangle with Joe in the middle. While it was still too soon to have a wild lesbian orgy like the type one sees on just about any Arrow-verse CW show, The Children's Hour has slightly more overt suggestions until Martha bursts out her 'love that dare not speak its name'.

At least that is what it thinks, because for all the 'daring' it congratulates itself on The Children's Hour seems rather dry and dull with such a dynamite plot. When Karen tells Joe that the accusation is that "Martha and I have been lovers," Hepburn delivers that line with less emotion than as if she were describing her latest Givenchy gown. I would argue that Hepburn would have more emotion if she talked about her latest Givenchy gown than she does with the shocking suggestion that she's Martha's mistress.

We get teased a lot about the 'shocking' elements but a lot of the probably racier elements are very muffled to almost opaque. When one of the children's drivers tells Karen the story he heard, it's from a distance and so muffled you can't hear it. For a movie that prided itself about being bold, open and daring The Children's Hour is shockingly restrained.

A bigger problem is that director William Wyler, remaking his own These Three, had everyone and everything be rather mannered and stagey. At times it looked more like watching a filmed play than a feature film. Of particular note is when Grandmama learns the actual truth. The way the scene is staged not only seems excessively dramatic but almost choreographed to have all four of them (Mary, Mrs. Tilford, Rosalie and Rosalie's mother) pose. I admit I shouted, "KILL THE BITCH, GRANDMA!" as Mrs. Tilford walked slowly upstairs towards Mary, but so much of The Children's Hour could not shake the idea that it was a play.

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It is also surprising that despite having a generally good cast The Children's Hour seems very over-dramatic in the acting. Hepburn had some good moments, particularly when she is silently in the background, the rage crossing her face. However, she seemed a bit detached from things, as if her generally patrician manner could not accept that anyone would think she was anything other than asexual.

Bainter, in her final film role, and Hopkins, who starred in the original These Three as Martha, did quite well as the shocked grande dame and wacky yet self-serving aunt respectively. I was not taken by Balkin's Mary, coming across as more whiny brat than true monster. MacLaine seemed to slip into almost farce, particularly when she came out. She was so wildly dramatic that I wouldn't blame anyone for breaking out into fits of laughter at what should be a shocking self-admission.

I am not well-acquainted with James Garner's work but I found him so stiff and uptight as Joe. I just didn't like him and worse did not believe him as the jilted boyfriend. When he is supposed to be devastated at Karen's rejection his reaction is so awful I thought how did he ever get any acting jobs, let alone as something as 'groundbreaking' as The Children's Hour?

I think part of the problem was that Wyler seemed more interested in making a lush film than a real film. The story just didn't seem as shocking at it perhaps should have been. I think a bit part of the problem was Alex North's score, which was perhaps too romantic for some moments. Moreover, the transitions are very much like a play. We, for example, are first told there would be a libel suit against Mrs. Tilford, but when we go to the next scene the trial is long over and we find the ruling was for the defendant. Another time, we wonder whether Aunt Lily is still upstairs, or why if she was still there, she didn't call out to Karen to help find her niece Martha.

The Children's Hour is neither as groundbreaking as it thinks it is or as tame as it ended up being. It occupies a very odd place, particularly in lesbian/gay representation: attempting to be bold but still holding on to the 'tragic lesbian' cliche. A bit boring for its subject with some disengaged performances and rather stage-bound, The Children's Hour is long past its time.


Friday, August 23, 2019

Easter Parade: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Fred Astaire.

Easter Parade has a pretty unoriginal plot and is an excuse to showcase the Irving Berlin songbook. In other words, it's one of the most delightful, wonderful musicals made with brilliant dance numbers and just a lovely, lovely time.

It's Easter Sunday, and Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) is excited because he and his dancing/romantic partner Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) are about to embark on tour. Nadine, however, has other plans. She's already signed a contract for a bigger show, breaking up the act. Add to this her barely hidden designs on their mutual friend Johnny Harrow (Peter Lawford).

Hurt and upset, Don swears he can take any girl and make her an equal to greater dance partner by next Easter. The selected girl is Hannah Brown (Judy Garland), a singing waitress. She realizes who Don is but struggles to learn Don's dancing steps. It's when Don realizes he's been trying to remake Hannah in Nadine's image that he sees why they've been failing. Now adapting the routines to Hannah's strengths, they soon start succeeding.

We then get a love quadrangle when Nadine keeps going after Johnny, Johnny falls for Hannah, Hannah falls for Don and Don keeps going between Nadine and Hannah. After a few romantic misunderstandings Don and Hannah finally get together to partake in the Easter Parade.

Image result for easter parade movieAs I said, Easter Parade does not have a particularly original plot: a man remakes a woman and ends up falling in love with her. Instead, it's a way to include as many Irving Berlin songs as possible in its running time. In its first ten minutes we hear three: Happy Easter, Drum Crazy and It Only Happens When I Dance with You.

However, when you have the Irving Berlin songbook, who seriously would complain? Easter Parade has a glut of wonderful songs, all sung and/or performed so well save for perhaps one number, which I'll get back to.

The curious thing is that the film mixes musical styles. Most numbers are performed on a stage but at least four numbers (Happy Easter, Drum Crazy, A Fella with An Umbrella and Easter Parade) are performed as if the characters just decided to break out into song. Somehow the mix never impedes or feels off.

A major part of the success is in getting two of the best musical performers in film history. Easter Parade is proof that Fred Astaire was an artistic genius. One does not need to see any other Astaire film to see that he truly was one of if not the greatest dancer in film history.

When we get to Drum Crazy, you see an artist of exceptional ability and skill. His ability to integrate the drums with his dancing is simply extraordinary. One is left breathless not out of exhaustion but out of amazement at how graceful, elegant and skilled Astaire was. His movements in It Only Happens When I Dance with You show his elegance and smooth manner. Perhaps his highlight is Steppin' Out with My Baby. In this number he seems to almost make time stand still as he slows down while the other dances move at a faster pace.

While this was clearly was done with trick photography, the end results are extraordinary.

Image result for easter parade movieIt takes an extraordinary talent to come close to Astaire, but Judy Garland more than holds her own. Her only solo number is a song (I Want to Go Back to Michigan), but when paired with Astaire she was so wonderful and skilled she draws your attention to her. From the musical montage as part of their audition for Ziegfeld to their hobo number We're A Couple of Swells, Garland is such a delight and able to more than be Astaire's equal.

The We're A Couple of Swells number is so fun and cheerful you get swept up in it, finding yourself grinning ear to ear as these two 'bums' dance and sing with such glee.

As a side note, Astaire was so eager to work with Garland that he came out of retirement to do Easter Parade, and Berlin was so eager to work with Garland that he turned down a better offer from Twentieth Century-Fox studios just to have Garland sing his songs. It's a credit to her abilities that these two legendary figures wanted to work with her.

Garland handled the acting as well as she handled the singing and dancing, in turns dramatic and comic (the way she 'attracts' men is delightful). Astaire too has a wonderful way of making seemingly awful things to say almost innocent. "I don't want the very best. I want you," he tells Hannah, quickly realizing how that sounds. He goes from clueless to sheepish with ease.

It's curious that Ann Miller, who has a smashing solo number in Shaking the Blues Away, was so overtly a villainous vamp that she was in sore need of a mustache to twirl. However, she is able to be as elegant as Astaire when they dance together. It wasn't the best performance but it good. As for Lawford, he was handsome but his sole musical number, A Fella with An Umbrella, left me a bit puzzled.

The song was great. His voice was not.

I could have done with the 'comedy bit' with the much-abused waiter Francois, but really apart from this Easter Parade is a sweet, charming musical filled with great musical numbers and bright colors. There is simply no way anyone would not be charmed by Easter Parade.