Thursday, November 27, 2014

BADLANDS


Well, I'm glad I finally got that out of my system.

Until a few nights ago, I'd never seen a Terence Malick film. The mercurial (and sometimes Austin resident) filmmaker has a reputation for making beautifully shot, incredibly cerebral films. He also rivals the legendary Stanley Kubrick for producing a small body of work over an extremely long period of time. Consider his filmography: BADLANDS (1973), DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), THE THIN RED LINE (1998), THE NEW WORLD (2005), THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), TO THE WONDER (2012) and KNIGHT OF CUPS (2014). That's seven films over a forty year span.

I finally watched my first (and most likely, last) Terence Malick film the other night. BADLANDS ran on TCM and I recorded it and watched it. I'm not certain of this, but I'm willing to bet good money that some 1973 film reviewer used the words "lyrical, poetic" in his or her review of BADLANDS. "Lyrical, poetic" in a film review are code words for "has no plot". BADLANDS has a plot (sorta). It's a beautifully shot film (three cinematographers worked on the film: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn), well acted (the young Martin Sheen and even younger Sissy Spacek are both very good), glacially paced film about two young lovers/killers on the run in the 1950s.

Except that there's no dramatic tension, no sense of urgency, no blackly comic buzz to the whole affair. BADLANDS goes nowhere and takes it own sweet time in getting there. You want a good young lovers/killers on the run film? Check  out THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), GUN CRAZY (1950), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) or THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), any one of which is infinitely better than BADLANDS.

Based on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958, Martin Sheen channels his inner James Dean into his portrayal of Kit, an insane young man who kills several people throughout the course of the film, all for no apparent reason. Kit is no thief who kills in the commission of his crimes. He's a thrill killer without the thrill. Spacek is Holly, a borderline retarded young woman who accompanies Kit on his cross country spree after he shoots her father (the great Warren Oates, who is sadly under used here). The two live a fairy tale existence for awhile, setting up a tree house in the woods where they become a Swiss Family Robinson style little family. But the law soon stumbles upon them, Kit shoots and kills the police officers and they're on the run again. They're eventually captured. Kit is executed, Holly receives probation.

As I said, the film is gorgeous to look at and well acted but that's about the only nice things I can say about BADLANDS. It's a pretentious art film and I hate pretentious art films. I don't think I'll bother to see any other Malick films. I'll add him to my list of filmmakers to avoid along with David Lynch and Quentin Tarrantino. Thumbs down.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THE BLUE MAX


It is stuck in my memory that I saw THE BLUE MAX (1966) at the Varsity Theater on The Drag when it was first released. It was a Sunday afternoon matinee. Don't know why I can remember that. I just do. So it's somehow fitting that I recently watched this film for the first time since 1966 the other afternoon. And yes, it was on a Sunday.

THE BLUE MAX, with a screenplay by Ben Barzman and Basilio Franchina from the novel by Jack D. Hunter, tells the story of one Corporal Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), a German army infantryman at the beginning of World War I who yearns to become a fighter pilot and, more importantly, an ace (20 kills) along with the accompanying Blue Max medal of honor. He joins a German squadron where he immediately sets out to prove himself in air combat at any cost. He lies about his first kill and butts heads with both his commanding officer Hauptmann Otto Heidermann (Karl Michael Vogler) and the resident ace, Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp). Stachel is from common stock which makes his desire to equal and better his aristocratic squadron mates even stronger.

Stachel's exploits soon catch the eye of General Count von Klugermann (the great James Mason) and his wife, Kaeti (the breathtakingly beautiful Ursula Andress). The count sees Stachel as playing an important part in a propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of the German people by showcasing the achievements of a commoner among the aristocracy. Kaeti, on the other hand, just wants to sleep with Stachel. They do so but it's a relationship that will soon lead to Stachel's downfall. Stachel eventually earns the highly coveted Blue Max but when the count learns that he won it by cheating, he lets Stachel fly a dangerously unsafe new, experimental aircraft with disastrous results.

THE BLUE MAX is a big, old-fashioned (it's got an intermission, anyone remember them?) epic war movie. Director John Guillermin does a great job with the action both on the ground and in the air. Shot in Ireland by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, THE BLUE MAX has a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith and spectacular flying sequences with stunt pilots and vintage aircraft putting on a dazzling show. Peppard is a bit stiff but I've always liked the guy. Mason is, as usual, superb and Andress is simply too gorgeous for words.Thumbs up.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A FINE PAIR


I took a chance on A FINE PAIR (1968) (when it showed up on TCM a few days ago) based solely on two things. The first was the film's description which read something like " a New York City police officer is blackmailed into helping a sexy cat burglar pull off a jewel heist". The second was the fact that said "sexy cat burglar" was played by the one and only Claudia Cardinale. The beautiful Italian actress has always been a favorite of mine and I figured anything with her in it was worth a look.

A FINE PAIR is an Italian film, directed by Francesco Maselli with a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. The beginning of the film takes place in New York City and it's odd to see an American city in a foreign made film. The action quickly moves to Continental Europe where the rest of the film takes place. But the cinematography is grainy and murky throughout and everyone's dialogue appears to have been looped in during post-production. As a result, A FINE PAIR, lacks the polish and slickness that other Hollywood produced romantic comedy caper films such as CHARADE had.

But it's not a bad little film at all. Rock Hudson is the NYC police captain who is pulled in by Claudia Cardinale, a young woman he's known since she was a child. He's friends with her family, a large Italian clan in which all of the men are police officers. Cardinale comes to New York and seeks Hudson's help. She tells him that a "friend" has stolen some jewels from the home of a wealthy couple who are on a cruise. She convinces him to help her replace the stolen loot before the owners return and discover them missing. Hudson agrees and they're off to the German Alps to figure out how to break into a virtually impenetrable fortress like house.

Hudson comes up with an ingenious way to defeat the state-of-the-art (for 1968) security system and while he's replacing the jewels (fake, of course), Cardinale steals the real ones. Afterwards, Hudson is turned on by his new life of crime and wants to accompany Cardinale on her next caper. But she wants to go straight. Or does she? The two fight and split up and it's a game of who's conning who before they're finally reunited at the end.

A FINE PAIR is light weight, breezy and fun. It's no masterpiece but I enjoyed watching it. Heck, I'd watch Claudia Cardinale read the phone book.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

AIR RAID WARDENS


In terms of sheer durability and longevity, the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was hard to beat. Both men had made numerous films separately in their careers before they teamed up as a duo on screen officially for the first time in PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP in 1927. 107 films and twenty-three years later, they made their last movie, ATOLL K in 1950.

For the record, these guys aren't my favorite comedy team from the Golden Age of Hollywood. That honor goes to the Marx Brothers, closely followed by, yes, the Three Stooges. Hey, I was exposed to the Stooges shorts at a very young age and their brand of roughhouse, slapstick (literally) humor stuck. They still make me laugh. I've only seen a handful of Laurel and Hardy films over the years and while I've enjoyed each and every one of them, I can't honestly say that I'm a huge fan.

I watched AIR RAID WARDENS last night. I recorded it off of TCM and no sooner had the film began than I remembered seeing  it not long ago when I had previously recorded if off of TCM. But I was in the mood for something light and funny and this one fit the bill. AIR RAID WARDENS (1943) is one of two films the duo made at MGM in the 1940s. In the film, they play failed businessmen in a small American town. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, they decide to enlist only to discover that none of the services will have them. They return home and split their failing bicycle shop with a meek, mild mannered man who sells radios. They also sign up for the local Civil Defense battalion. They proceed to make a mess of that and are finally forced to resign as air raid wardens. Dejected and despondent, the boys eventually turn into heroes when they discover that their mild mannered business partner is actually the head of a Nazi spy ring that plans to blow up the magnesium plant outside of town. Thanks to the intervention of Laurel and Hardy the plot is foiled.

There's nothing new, fresh or original to be found here. You can see every joke, set-up and situation coming from miles away but the pleasure is in the anticipation and the pay off. There's a nice sequence where the boys terrorize Edgar Kennedy who was the master of the "slow burn" comic take. Kennedy's signature mannerism of slowly wiping his face with one hand in frustration was later appropriated by Brian Keith who used the gesture in almost every episode of the 1960s television series FAMILY AFFAIR.

One thing that struck me as odd is how everyone in the film constantly refers to Laurel and Hardy as "the boys" even though they're both grown, middle aged men. AIR RAID WARDENS is light and breezy and fun. No belly laughs to be had here but I did get a couple of chuckles out of it and that's exactly what I wanted.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

OFF TO A GREAT START


I had a great time last night at the first classic film night at Waco's newly reopened, one-hundred-year-old Hippodrome Theater. I had the pleasure of introducing "Marilyn Monroe" at 6:30 p.m. who sang several songs for the audience while they were placing their food and drink orders and waiting for the film to begin.

Then at 7:00 p.m., Marilyn joined me on the stage for some announcements for upcoming events at the Hippodrome and to introduce THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954). The plot of the film was, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood, "about as solid as a loaf of bread" but it was a ton of fun to watch and the audience seemed to really enjoy it.

When the movie was over, I took the stage to make some comments about the film and to take questions from the audience for about fifteen minutes. I had to correct one patron who said that Donald O'Connor and Mitzi Gaynor (who co-starred in SHOW BUSINESS) also appeared together in another 1954 musical film, WHITE CHRISTMAS. Sorry, but no. WHITE CHRISTMAS stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney.

Afterwards, Marilyn and I posed in the lobby along with a nifty poster (which I brought home to hang on the wall of the man cave) promoting the event. Marilyn was a doll. Great singer and really into her character. I'm just glad the Hippodrome didn't hire an Ethel Merman impersonator!

There are more classic films scheduled for the Hippodrome including THE CIRCUS (Charlie Chaplin) and the first three original STAR WARS films (STAR WARS, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI). I've written notes for all of these films but dates for screenings have not been announced. Check the Hippodrome website (the address is located on the right hand side of this blog) for more details.

Being a part of film history last night was a dream come true for me. I had an absolute blast. My thanks to Melissa Green, programmer for the Hippodrome, for giving me this wonderful opportunity. A classic film and a classic theater makes for one unforgettable, classic evening.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

"SEE ME. HEAR ME."


This coming Tuesday evening, November 18th, at 7:00 p.m., I'll be introducing a screening of THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954) at the newly re-opened, one-hundred-year-old Hippodrome Theater in Waco, Texas. A talkback will follow after the screening. The Hippodrome website says I'm a "film scholar." I like the sound of that.

This is the first of many classic film screenings scheduled at the Hippodrome. Coming up (dates to be confirmed) are THE CIRCUS (Charlie Chaplin) and the first three original STAR WARS films ( A NEW HOPE, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE RETURN OF THE JEDI). More will be announced shortly but those are the ones that I've written film notes for.

I had my first meeting with Melissa Green, programmer for The Hippodrome, back in June. I agreed to write film notes for any and all classic films they screen and to provide introductions and talkbacks on an occasional basis. I haven't written about this until now because I wanted to wait until everything was official and the theater was actually open for business.

The Hippodrome has plans to be Waco's home-grown version of Austin's venerable Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. In addition to the occasional classic film, the Hippodrome will play first run feature films, live music, theater (including the Pollyanna Theater Company's production of LIBERTY! EQUALITY! AND FIREWORKS!), etc. The plan is to have something happening every night of the week. The theater has two performance venues, the main theater on the ground floor and an enclosed, more intimate balcony theater on the second level. There's also a full bar and restaurant.

I'm thrilled to be a part of the rebirth of this piece of Texas movie theater history. If you're in the Waco or Central Texas area and want to see a classic film along with yours truly, go to  http://wacohippodrometheatre.com/events to purchase tickets and for more information.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

SHADOWED MILLIONS


1933 got off to a great start with the publication of SHADOWED MILLIONS by Maxwell Grant (the house name that Shadow creator and chief scribe Walter Gibson worked under) on January 1st. It was the 21st published adventure of the pulp crime fighter. That's the 1970s paperback reprint pictured above, published by Pyramid Books and sporting a gorgeous cover by master comic book artist Jim Steranko. I finished reading this book last night and it's a corker.

Alvarez Legira, consul of the newly created South American republic of Santander, comes to New York City to acquire ten million dollars from a group of wealthy financiers and investors. Ten million dollars is a hell of a lot of money in 2014. In 1933, it was an absolutely astronomical sum. Legira secures the loan but it's not clear if he will use the money to boost his country's economy or if he plans to abscond with all of it for himself.

Crooks get wind of the deal and start maneuvering to cut themselves in for either a piece of the action or the entire amount. Legira hires a look-a-like to throw off the bad guys but it's too little, too late. Murders occur and Legira is forced to go into hiding with the money while he waits for a boat to arrive off of the coast of Long Island.

Of course, The Shadow is mixed up in all of this and he races against the clock to prevent a criminal mastermind from stealing the money. There's a terrific gun battle in the third act, followed by a hell-and-gone car chase and shootout before the final showdown aboard a yacht where The Shadow engineers a masterful switcheroo.

SHADOWED MILLIONS is fast paced and fun. It's far from the greatest Shadow novel ever written but it's a good one nonetheless. Thumbs up.