Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars


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I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Ivanhoe (dir by Richard Thorpe)


Welcome to England in the 12th century!

That’s the setting of the 1952 best picture nominee, Ivanhoe.  It’s a green and healthy land, full of chivalrous knights and corrupt royalty and outlaws who steal from the rich and give to the poor.  King Richard the Lion Heart (Norman Wooland) left on a crusade and he hasn’t been seen for a while.  Richard’s evil brother, the cowardly King John (Guy Rolfe), rules the country and has little interest in making sure that Richard returns.  Even when Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) discovers that Richard is being held for ransom, John declines to do anything about it.

Ivanhoe is determined to raise the money to pay the ransom and restore Richard to the throne of England, even if he has to secretly compete in a tournament to do it.  Of course, before he can do that, he’ll have to buy a horse and some armor.  Fortunately, he comes across Isaac (Felix Aylmer) and his daughter, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).  Isaac and Rebecca give Ivanhoe the money necessary to purchase a good horse and equipment.  Rebecca falls in love with Ivanoe, despite the fact that Ivanhoe is in love with Rowena (Joan Fontaine, who spends most of the movie looking rather bored).

Speaking of love, the king’s favorite knight — the hot-headed but honorable Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) — has fallen in love with Rebecca.  That, of course, complicates matters when the anti-Semitic King John attempts to have the Jewish Rebecca burned at the stake for witchcraft.  When Ivanhoe invokes the “wager of challenge,” in an effort to save Rebecca’s life, Sir Brian is chosen as the court’s champion.  Needless to say, this leads to some awkward moments….

Listen, I would be lying if I said that it was easy for me to follow the plot of Ivanhoe.  It seemed like every few minutes, someone else was plotting against either Ivanoe or King John and it got a bit difficult to keep track of what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish.  By the time Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) showed up, I have given up trying to make sense of the plot.

Instead of worrying about the exact details of the plot, I decided to just enjoy the film as a spectacle.  If nothing else, Ivanhoe is gorgeous to look at.  The colors are lush and full and the costumes and the sets are all wonderfully ornate.  Apparently, 12 Century England was a very colorful place.  There’s a lot of battles and jousts and sword fights.  I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting who but at least the film moved at a steady pace.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine make for a dull leading couple but a young Elizabeth Taylor is stunning in the role of Rebecca and George Sanders transforms Sir Brian into a truly tragic figure.  Guy Rolfe is memorably evil as King John, though he’s perhaps not as much fun as Oscar Isaac was in Robin Hood.  Everyone in the movie looks good in their period costuming.  Really, that’s the most important thing.

Ivanhoe was nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Greatest Show On Earth.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux


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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an…

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Saddle Sore: BILLY THE KID (MGM 1941)


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What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? Perennial bad guy Brian Donlevy is on the side of the law, loveable Gene Lockhart is the villain, and almost 30 Robert Taylor is BILLY THE KID. This 1941 Technicolor horse opera has only a passing resemblance to reality, and was actually a remake of a 1930 film starring Wallace Beery and Johnny Mack Brown, which depicted the outlaw’s legend a bit more truthfully… but not much!

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In this version, Billy joins up with ruthless cattleman Hickey, who’s out to takeover Lincoln County. They start a stampede of rival Keating’s cattle, and during the commotion Billy encounters childhood friend Jim Sherwood, now working for Keating. Billy and his pal Pedro switch sides, and Pedro takes a bullet for it. The Kid is out for revenge, but Keating’s cooler head prevails, and he sets out to seek help from the territorial governor.

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But Keating doesn’t make it, as we…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Broadway Melody of 1936 (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


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It’s Oscar month and you know what that means!  It’s time for TCM to do their annual 31 Days of Oscars!  For the next 31 days, TCM is going to be showing movies that were nominated for and occasionally won Oscars.  This is a great month for me because it has long been my goal to see and review every single film that has ever been nominated for best picture.  Considering that close to 500 movies have been nominated, that’s no small task.  However, over the past four years, I have definitely made some progress, as you can see by clicking on this link and looking at a list of every single best picture nominee.  Thank you, TCM, for helping me get closer to my goal!

For instance, if not for TCM, how would I ever had the chance to watch Broadway Melody of 1936?  Broadway Melody of 1936 was one of the twelve films to be nominated for best picture of 1935 but it’s now largely forgotten.  When film loves discuss the best musicals of the 30s, it’s rare that you ever hear mention of Broadway Melody of 1936.

Technically, it can be argued that Broadway Melody of 1936 was the first sequel to ever be nominated for best picture, despite the fact that it has little in common with Broadway Melody, beyond taking place on Broadway and being nominated for best picture.  (Broadway Melody won the award.  Broadway Melody of 1936 lost to Mutiny on the Bounty.)  Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, Part II, Mad Max: Fury Road, Toy Story 3, and The Bells of St. Mary’s are all sequels that were nominated for best picture but Broadway Melody of 1936 did it first.

As for what Broadway Melody of 1936 is about … well, it’s really not about anything.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  The film has a plot.  Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell) wants her former high school boyfriend, Broadway director Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor), to cast her in his new show but Gordon refuses because he doesn’t want the innocent Irene to be exposed to the sordid world of show business.  Fortunately, Irene has some allies who are willing to help her get that role.  Ted Burke (Buddy Ebsen) is an appealingly goofy dancer who, at one point, wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.  Bert Keeler (Jack Benny) is a columnist who rattles off his “New Yawk cynical” dialogue in the style of most 1930s news reporters.

Broadway Melody of 1936 has a plot but it’s not really that important.  The story is just an excuse for the songs and the dance numbers.  And while none of the numbers are spectacular (especially when compared to other 30s musicals, like 42nd Street), they are all definitely likable.

Seen today, Broadway Melody of 1936 seems like an odd best picture nominee.  It’s not bad but there’s nothing particularly great about it.  To truly appreciate the film, it’s probably necessary to try to imagine what it was like to watch the film in 1935.  At a time when the country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, Broadway Melody of 1936 provided audiences with an escape.  Audiences could watch the film and imagine that they, just like Eleanor Powell, could leave behind the dullness of reality and find stardom in the glamorous and glitzy world of Broadway.

Never doubt the power of escapism.

 

Film Review: Focus (dir by Glenn Ficara and John Requa)


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The snow and ice finally melted today so, this afternoon, Jeff and I went down to the Alamo Drafthouse and we saw the just released Will Smith/Margot Robbie film, Focus.

You know how there’s some films that you see and you know that you had a good enough time while you were watching it and then, a few hours later, you realize that the movie itself is quickly fading from your memory?  It’s not that you just saw a bad movie as much as you just watched one that was not exceptionally good.  To a large extent, that sums up how I felt about Focus.  I watched it.  I was mildly entertained.  And I have a feeling that, 6 months from now, I’m going to come across this review and say something like, “Oh yeah, I guess I did see that movie.”  It gets the job done but it doesn’t do much else.

(I was actually tempted to start this review by saying that Focus was good for a “March movie” but then I remembered that last year, The Grand Budapest Hotel came out in March and proved that the date of release is no longer an excuse.)

In Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon.  Nicky’s nickname is Mellow but he didn’t get that nickname for the reason that you probably think he did.  (Though, rest assured, we do find out the exact reason why Nicky is called Mellow and yes, it does factor into the film’s final twist.)  Nicky is anything but mellow.  Instead, he’s a professional con artist who is always scheming, who always considers every detail, and who is always focused on getting what he wants.

The film is split into two parts and the first part is actually pretty good.  An inexperienced con artist named Jess (Margot Robbie) attempts to rob Nicky and gets a lecture as a result.  Nicky isn’t so much upset that Jess tried to con him as much as he, as a professional, is annoyed that Jess did such a bad job of it.  This leads to Nicky eventually becoming Jess’s mentor.  Nicky teaches Jess all the tools of the trade, introduces her to all the properly quirky members of his crew, and he even goes against his own advice (which is to never get close to anyone) when he and Jess become lovers.

The highlight of the first part of the film is a football game where Nicky and a compulsive gambler (B.D. Wong) end up making a series of increasingly ludicrous bets.  B.D. Wong gives such a memorably unhinged performance that he briefly made the entire film seem more interesting than it actually was.  In fact, as I look back over Focus, I find myself wishing that the entire film has just been about his character.

But, unfortunately, the film isn’t about B.D. Wong.  Instead, it’s about Nicky and Jess.  The second part of the film, which takes place three years after the first part, features Jess and Nicky as equals and it feels like almost an entirely different movie.  Whereas Smith and Robbie had a nice chemistry as teacher and student, that chemistry vanishes after the time jump.  Unfortunately, that’s not all that vanishes.  The film’s pace and playful sense of fun disappears as well.  If the first half of the film felt like an above average first episode of a quirky TV show, the second half felt like a long-running sitcom on which the show runner had been fired and suddenly replaced.  It was similar to what had come before but, ultimately, it felt very different.

Focus does end with a big twist but, long before it was revealed, Jeff and I both guessed what it was.  The problem is that we’ve seen so many movies about con artists that we know that all of them are destined to end with a big twist that reveals that there was another con going on that we didn’t know about.  It’s impossible to be surprised by the eventual twist because we all know that it’s coming.  For a “con movie” like Focus to work, it has to either be so cleverly written or so much fun to watch that we actually stop thinking about the inevitability of the upcoming twist.  But, since Focus is never as clever as it thinks it is, we instead spend our whole time thinking about the twist and, seeing as how you’re a clever and experience filmgoer, you probably won’t have much trouble predicting it.

But here’s the thing: I think it’s possible to be too critical of a film like Focus.  Focus may not be good but it does have it fun moments.  Will Smith could play Nicky in his sleep.  (And, to be honest, he occasionally seems to be doing just that.)  Margot Robbie looks like she belongs in an old film noir.  The settings are glamorous.  The clothes are to die for.  Ultimately, Focus is both moderately enjoyable and extremely forgettable.  If you don’t see it in a theater, you won’t regret it.  However, when it show up on cable in December, it’ll make for inoffensive background noise.