Monday, July 9, 2018

Movie Log for June 2018

I've been unusually busy this summer, which means that my movie viewing has been fairly limited. In spite of that, I've been enjoying the summer blockbuster fare and classics on FilmStruck, which has a wonderfully robust collection that changes frequently (the subscription is definitely worth it, so check out FilmStruck if you don't already use it!).

Because my new, unpaid "day job" is pretty stressful, I'm gravitating toward comedies more than ever, especially English ones that provide me with an escape from the concerns of the day. Filmstruck has been happy to provide exactly what I'm looking for, with Ealing comedies, Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple films, and other light romps.

My spouse, ever eager to suggest movies that appeal more to his own tastes, has introduced some horror into the mix, which explains the presence of Found Footage 3D (although I have to say it was quite funny and worth your time if you enjoy horror comedies). Shudder continues to be our go-to streaming service for horror, although I would still like to see more silent, classic, and B horror selections there. The "Foundations of Horror" category needs more entries to live up to its name, and I'd love to have access to more Hammer and drive-in sci-fi horror.

Here's the movie log for May and June of 2018 -

May

After the Thin Man (1936)
Found Footage 3D (2016)
Another Thin Man (1939)
All This And Heaven, Too (1940)
Black Panther (2018)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Merry Andrew (1958)
The Wicker Man (1973)

June

Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Oceans 8 (2018)
Incredibles 2 (2018)
Queen Christina (1933)
Murder, She Said (1961)
The Ladykillers (1955)
Game Night (2018)
Murder at the Gallop (1963)

What are you watching this summer? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: JULIA MISBEHAVES (1948)

Directed by Jack Conway, Julia Misbehaves (1948) is a charming, frothy romantic comedy that reunites the stars of Mrs. Miniver (1942) for a rather different look at the ups and downs of marriage. Greer Garson kicks up her heels as a bohemian performer long estranged, but not divorced, from husband Walter Pidgeon. The picture also features a host of familiar faces, including Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford as a young pair with romantic issues of their own and great character actors like Cesar Romero, Nigel Bruce, Mary Boland, Reginald Owen, and Henry Stephenson. The cast alone makes the film worth seeing, but Garson and Pidgeon share a delightful chemistry that enriches their scenes together even when their characters are being most ridiculous.

Garson stars as Julia Packett, who long ago left her husband and infant daughter and returned to the stage to make her own way. Broke but persevering on pluck and a steady stream of schemes, Julia is surprised by an invitation to her daughter's wedding and decides to attend. Her mother-in-law (Lucile Watson) hopes to eject Julia from the nuptials, but husband William (Walter Pidgeon) quickly falls for her all over again, much to his mother's dismay. Meanwhile, daughter Susan (Elizabeth Taylor) is preparing to marry an unseen groom while fighting her attraction to the handsome young Ritchie (Peter Lawford).

Julia Misbehaves resolutely focuses on the comedic aspects of its material, but there's a lot of heartache lurking beneath the bubbly surface. Over the course of the picture we learn that Julia married William when she was only seventeen and he was a young soldier abroad. They had happy days together at first, but we get the distinct sense that their separation was orchestrated by William's mother, who disapproves of Julia and schemes to divide them once more by inviting Julia's acrobatic admirer, Fred (Cesar Romero), into the Packett family home. Several scenes touch on the longing Julia has felt to be reunited with Susan all these years, and the conversations between Julia and Mrs. Packett suggest that Julia was forbidden that contact. These details matter because we're supposed to like Julia and understand that she didn't just abandon her family for life on the stage; she was pushed out against her will when she was still very young. When she returns, Julia has become a force in her own right, no longer vulnerable to Mrs. Packett's intimidation.

The story, therefore, is essentially a comeback comedy, with Julia regaining the things she lost so many years ago. In order to survive and become a match for the scheming Mrs. Packett, Julia has learned to be quite a schemer herself. She wheels and deals to get the money she needs; we first see her in a bathtub threatening to commit suicide in order to induce her friend Benji (Reginald Owen) to pay off her debts. She later bamboozles an old gambler (Nigel Bruce) so that she can buy gifts for Susan. The men in the picture also resort to underhanded plots for good causes; William turns out to be just as crafty as his mother and his wife, especially as he works to rekindle the flame of his marriage, while Ritchie hatches plans to frighten Susan into his arms with some help from a friendly bear. Even sweet Susan turns out to have a few schemes up her sleeve at the story's close, much to the surprise of her parents. Everybody, it seems, has to be a trickster sometimes in order to make happy endings happen.

Julia Misbehaves is the final film directed by Jack Conway, who had started in the silent era and gone on to direct a number of Jean Harlow comedies, including Red-Headed Woman (1932), Libeled Lady (1936), and Saratoga (1937). Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon star in eight movies together, with Julia Misbehaves as their fifth pairing and a rare foray into comedic territory. More typical of their collaborations are Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), and Mrs. Parkington (1944). For another film featuring both Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor, see the 1949 adaptation of Little Women, or move on to Father of the Bride (1950) for more of young Liz in a wedding dress.


WHERE TO WATCH: Julia Misbehaves is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)

After the Thin Man (1936) reunites director W.S. Van Dyke and stars William Powell and Myrna Loy for a sequel to the 1934 hit, The Thin Man, in which Nick and Nora Charles first cracked wise and drank heavily through a crime-solving adventure. We pick up right where we left off at the end of the first movie, with Nick, Nora, and Asta on a train to California, which makes the first two films a great double bill, even though they were released two years apart. After the Thin Man offers more of everything that made the first picture such a success, with the wealthy couple boozing their way through the new year and a series of homicides. Along for the ride are a number of familiar classic stars, including James Stewart, Joseph Calleia, and George Zucco, as well as Elissa Landi as Nora's troubled cousin, Selma.

Nick and Nora (Powell and Loy) arrive in San Francisco for New Year's Eve only to find that Nora's cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi), is in distress after the disappearance of her faithless husband, Robert (Alan Marshal). Nick has no trouble locating Robert and his mistress at a crowded hot spot, but then Robert turns up dead in front of Selma's house, and it looks like Selma might have killed him. Her longtime admirer, David (James Stewart), arrives on the scene to help, but Robert is just the first corpse of the mystery, and two more rapidly follow. With plenty of suspects on hand, including sketchy businessman Dancer (Joseph Calleia), jealous loser Phil (Paul Fix), and sinister Dr. Kammer (George Zucco), the police have their work cut out for them, even with Nick and Nora's help.

Much of the comedy of this outing lies in the contrast between Nick and Nora's social sets, whom we first see set against each other and then brought together thanks to Robert's shady habits. Nick knows every low-life, ex-con, and purse snatcher in town, and even the guys he sent to prison seem to like him. When Nora is greeted by a well-heeled couple in a passing car, she wryly tells Nick, "Oh, you wouldn't know them, darling. They're respectable." It turns out, however, that Nora's relations are not all that respectable themselves; they merely preserve the appearance of respectability while engaging in coercion, blackmail, adultery, and obstruction of justice. Selma's philandering husband is up to his neck in self-made trouble, but Selma's mother (Jessie Ralph) bullies and manipulates Selma into keeping quiet about his disappearance and his behavior. The rest of Nora's relatives are just antiquated bores; poor Nick has to make up both sides of the conversation when he's left alone with a table full of snoring, elderly gents after a family dinner party. It's little wonder that both he and Nora prefer Nick's more exciting acquaintances.

Asta's domestic woes feature as an odd running gag throughout the film, creating a canine version of the plot's themes of adultery, betrayal, and romance gone wrong. Asta returns from his Christmas travels to find that Mrs. Asta has produced a litter of puppies, but one of the bunch looks suspiciously like the Scottish Terrier who keeps sneaking onto the property. Asta chases his rival off repeatedly but never seems to get rid of him for good. Perhaps it's the stress of his romantic frustrations that makes Asta snatch and then eat part of a vital clue. Nick and Nora, who lavish attention on Asta, never seem to give the slightest thought to Mrs. Asta and her children, which might explain why the neglected pup, shut up in her backyard pen, has gone looking for affection elsewhere. At least the dogs don't resort to murder to solve their problems with each other, and on the whole they're better behaved than most of the movie's humans.

Powell and Loy continue the series with Van Dyke in Another Thin Man (1939) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) before moving to other directors for The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). For more of a very young Jimmy Stewart, see Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and Born to Dance (1936). Look for Elissa Landi in The Sign of the Cross (1932), By Candlelight (1933), and The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Penny Singleton, billed as Dorothy McNulty, proves quite a scene stealer as nightclub singer Polly; she would go on to play the title character in more than two dozen Blondie films and provide the voice for Jane Jetson in the cartoon TV series, so be sure to appreciate her early appearance here.

Want to watch The Thin Man series? All of the films are currently available for streaming on FilmStruck.

Related Reviews:

LIBELED LADY (1936)
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

Monday, April 30, 2018

FilmStruck! Finally!

I'm delighted to announce that FilmStruck has finally arrived at our house. While I have been watching the development of this new streaming service since its early days, I had to wait for it to be available for Roku devices to enjoy it myself. Travel and commitment schedules made the first few months of 2018 too busy to take full advantage of the free trial period, but now that I'm finally signed up I look forward to watching lots of TCM Selects and Criterion Channel films through the long, hot summer.

I hope that FilmStruck will fill a gap that mainstream services have left yawning of late. I haven't been able to get my classic movie fix from Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. (Prime is the worst in some ways; it tantalizes and then disappoints with its muddy, unwatchable copies of public domain fare.) The spouse will also be able to watch his fill of Godzilla movies and cult horror, which ought to make him happy to pay for me to indulge in my own favorite genres.

Now that we've joined the FilmStruck family, let me know what you've been watching there and what you think I ought to add to my watchlist. It's already bursting, but there's room for more!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: THE WRONG ARM OF THE LAW (1963)

Directed by Cliff Owen, The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) provides a genial, humorous look at the symbiotic relationship of cops and crooks in mid-century London, with Peter Sellers appearing to great effect as a criminal gang boss and Lionel Jeffries co-starring as an ambitious officer of the law. The picture is primarily a heist plot with plenty of comic twists, including the disruption of the "natural order" by a group of Australian interlopers who pose as coppers to make off with the bandits' boodle. Sellers gives a delightful performance that puts his chameleon talents on display, while Jeffries bumbles hilariously behind and beside Sellers' quick-thinking crook. Bernard Cribbins also makes a memorable appearance as one of Sellers' partners in crime, while the lovely Nanette Newman plays Sellers' duplicitous girlfriend.

Sellers stars as Cockney crime boss Pearly Gates, who masquerades by day as a legitimate French businessman who makes ladies' dresses. When his criminal jobs are repeatedly upended by a trio of "cops" who make off with the haul and leave the crooks behind, Pearly realizes that a new gang is using police uniforms to rob the robbers. Meanwhile, the determined but incompetent Inspector Parker (Lionel Jeffries), tries to nab Pearly's men but can't find any of the stolen goods. Pearly and his fellow crime boss, Nervous O'Toole (Bernard Cribbins), propose a collaborative effort with the police to shut down the fake cops once and for all, but Pearly doesn't suspect that the interlopers' inside informant is his own girlfriend, Valerie (Nanette Newman).

It's great fun to watch Sellers shift between his refined French persona and the Cockney patter of Pearly Gates, especially when other characters force him to switch gears quickly. Pearly is clearly the smartest person in the room, except when Valerie is around, and then he discloses all his plots and jobs without ever suspecting that he himself is being played. Inspector Parker, inevitably teased as "Nosy" by everyone else, is a bumbling foil and eventual sidekick to Pearly, with Sellers and Jeffries playing off each other in several key scenes, especially in the third act.

Most entertaining, however, is the absurdly orderly world of London's criminal gangs, an inoffensive set, really, who surrender without a fuss when caught and never hold a grudge against the police for arresting them. Cops and robbers is just a game here, without real danger or consequences, and thus a cat burglar can enter the room of a sleeping young woman and steal only her valuables and perhaps a secret kiss (one that also slips her earring from her ear!). The London thieves are easy pickings for the fake cops because it doesn't occur to any of the crooks to fight back against men in uniform, and when given the opportunity the thieves simply make their escape. Their adherence to order reaches its ridiculous height in the scene where Pearly calls a meeting of all of London's criminal elements, and the gathered crooks and cons religiously observe Robert's Rules of Order. They are, in fact, much more organized and effective than the police, a fact that becomes clear when the cops botch their parts of the plan to catch the Australian gang in the act.

The action in The Wrong Arm of the Law zips along and keeps the viewer guessing about where all of these shenanigans will lead, and if you've exhausted the available stock of Ealing comedies this film makes a great follow-up. Peter Sellers is best remembered today for the Pink Panther films, Being There (1979), and Dr. Strangelove (1964), but you can also see him with Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955). Watch for John Le Mesurier as the Assistant Commissioner, along with Dennis Price and a young Michael Caine in uncredited roles. Cliff Owen went on to direct The Vengeance of She (1968) and No Sex, Please: We're British (1973). Catch Lionel Jeffries in Camelot (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968); Jeffries also directed Bernard Cribbins in The Railway Children (1970). Nanette Newman appears in The Stepford Wives (1975) and as the adult Velvet Brown in International Velvet, a 1978 sequel to the original film starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

FLASH GORDON and Sam Jones in Huntsville

The 2018 Huntsville Comic Con opened with a screening of the 1980 cult classic Flash Gordon with a Q&A featuring special guest Sam Jones, who played the title character in the film. An excited audience gathered on Thursday, March 29th, to see the movie on the big screen and ask its star a few questions.

The screening itself was a big success, with a good crowd for a town like Huntsville and an excellent sound system that blasted the Queen soundtrack in all its glory. The vibrant colors of the sets and costumes still pop, and the audience cheered as Flash played football with a giant egg, fought future 007 Timothy Dalton on a hazardous tilting platform, and saved the Earth from Max von Sydow's sneering Emperor Ming.

Nearly forty years after its original release, Flash Gordon continues to be a campy sci-fi delight, with stand out performances from Dalton, von Sydow, Brian Blessed, and Topol. Other memorable actors in the cast include Melody Anderson as Dale, Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, Peter Wyngarde as Klytus, and Richard O'Brien as Fico. Along with Dale and Dr. Zarkov, Flash travels to an alien world and fights to save his own planet after Ming the Merciless makes Earth his latest plaything. While Ming lusts after Dale, Flash struggles to unite the warring factions of Ming's court in a rebellion against the tyrant, but his efforts are complicated by Princess Aura's attraction to him and Prince Barin's resulting jealousy. The heroic adventures conclude in a grand battle to take down Ming and rescue Dale from her forced marriage to him. Queen's earworm theme for the film punctuates key moments with campy enthusiasm, while Danilo Donati's costume designs fill the eye with vivid color and quite a bit of female flesh. The final effect is more Barbarella than Star Wars, full of S&M undertones and visual hyperbole, but clearly reveling in both.

After the screening, Sam Jones took the stage to answer questions from the audience, but he was less interested in talking about the making of the film and more focused on his personal life, later career, and thoughts about acting in general. He discussed his appearance in Ted (2012) and his current film project, The Silent Natural, which does not yet have a release date. Those looking forward to an in-depth talk about the origins of Flash Gordon, its history as a comic strip and serial, and personal anecdotes about Timothy Dalton, Max von Sydow, and Brian Blessed were disappointed, but the audience was treated to Jones' positive opinion of Steven Seagal and lingering grudge against Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For those who really want to learn more about Flash Gordon, the Blu-ray release features an interview with Alex Ross and the first episode of the 1936 serial starring Buster Crabbe in the title role. You can also explore the history of the comic strip online. Empire Online has a detailed article about the 1980 film called "Gordon's alive! The untold story of Flash Gordon."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DECOY (1946)

Directed by Jack Bernhard, Decoy (1946) is one of those film noir gems that lacks the glitter of a big budget and A-list stars but nonetheless shines with its own devilish light. Jean Gillie makes her penultimate screen appearance as a femme fatale so fixated on claiming a stolen fortune that she'll literally bring a man back from the dead to get it, with Robert Armstrong, Edward Norris, and Herbert Rudley as the men who will kill and die in service to her schemes. Those who love a twisted tale of murder and greed will relish this dark delight, which begins at the finale and then rewinds to unfold its sordid story. We know from the start that this is going to end badly.

Gillie plays the beautiful but deadly Margot, the girlfriend of death row inmate Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong). Margot knows that Frankie is sitting on a pile of stolen cash, but she doesn't know where it is, so she arranges for Frankie to be resurrected after his date with the gas chamber. Gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) helps her because he wants to recoup the costs he incurred paying for Frankie's defense, while Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley) is seduced into the plot by Margot's charms. Once Lloyd resuscitates Frankie, avarice drives both Margot and Vincent to extremes, while Lloyd is drawn ever deeper into their crimes.

There's no budget or time for fancy flourishes, but Decoy works with the materials at hand, especially Gillie's mesmerizing performance as one of the coldest, most ruthless dames to grace the noir genre. She doesn't love any of the men she uses; she will happily see every one of them dead twice over if it means the bag of cash belongs to her alone. Plotting to resurrect Frankie just to betray him is mean even for a femme fatale, but Gillie does it with a grim determination that never veers into hysteria or camp. She approaches the elimination of the equally faithless Vincent the same way, running him over with their car and then coolly collecting the tools he had been using to fix a flat tire. Lloyd, horrified into a frozen stupor, can only hiss, "I'd like to kill you," as Margot carries on with her single-minded quest. She finally cracks up when she thinks she has the cash at last, laughing maniacally while Lloyd digs up the box in Frankie's hiding spot. Frankie, however, will have the last laugh, and the ending is a gut punch of irony that knocks the viewer flat.

The film is a pitch black study in the ways a man can be ruined by a woman like Margot, a siren so powerful and deadly that she lures even men who don't trust her to a horrible fate. Frankie is a criminal but not a monster; he adores Margot and wants money only to lavish gifts on his girl, but he's smart enough to take steps against an inevitable betrayal. Vincent is a cold-blooded snake; he clearly means to get the upper hand, but he doesn't realize that Margot is a python in comparison until it's too late. Tragic Lloyd is a good man undone by this serpentine beauty; he loses everything because of Margot until all that's left is a dying wish to take her out with him, which is where the picture begins. The only man who survives contact with Margot is Sgt. Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), a cop with a gangster's face who feels an attraction to Margot even though he knows what she is. "People who use pretty faces like you use yours," he tells her, "don't live very long anyway." The film opens and closes with the fulfillment of his prediction.

Jean Gillie made only one additional film, The Macomber Affair (1947), before her premature death in 1949, but she can be found in earlier pictures like The Gentle Sex (1943) and Flight from Folly (1945). She was married to director Jack Bernhard when Decoy was made, but they divorced in 1947, and Bernhard went on to direct Blonde Ice (1948) and Appointment with Murder (1948). Robert Armstrong is best remembered today for King Kong (1933), and you can also see him in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Herbert Rudley found success primarily in television, but he makes appearances in Brewster's Millions (1945) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945), while Sheldon Leonard earned numerous Emmy nominations and two wins for his work behind the camera on Make Room for Daddy (1953-1964). You might also recognize Leonard as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls (1955).