Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Summer Regards: Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

An adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, Richards Brooks' Sweet Bird of Youth ('62), like The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ('58) before it, ran into some problematic production-code speedbumps in translation to the big screen yet still pulsates with that sweaty, oppressive inclination.

An essential and defining work in the career of the masterful playwright, Sweet Bird of Youth explores a good portion of Williams' trademark themes including repression, Southern authority, nostalgia and aging obsolescence.

The metaphorical title refers more specifically to the fledgling romance between Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) and the daughter of a domineering politician, Heavenly (Shirley Knight), yet it's the performance of Geraldine Page as the aging, listless former Hollywood star that leaves its stamp on the film.

Utilizing flashbacks and cold-hard marginalization, the film becomes an acute examination of love and the pursuit of fame and fortune. As Chance says himself, "the biggest of all differences between people is between those who have had pleasure in love and those who haven't."

The ending is unfortunately first-rate Hollywood smudging and unsuitably optimistic, yet at the very least it makes logical sense opposed to the quick touch-up on the end to the aforementioned film version of The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Also Williams' more explicit themes are slightly hushed and inferred upon in order to slip by censors, yet the crackling dialogue and the rich, relatable and deeply inflicted characters remain firmly in tact throughout. [A-]

Summer Regards: Shall We Dance, Carefree

"SHALL WE DANCE" (Mark Sandrich; 1937)

The seventh Rogers and Astaire collaboration, Shall We Dance ('37) comes pre-loaded with as much pedigree as ever - a longer running-time, a bigger budget, a George Gershwin score - yet for all its worth, this is their first film exhibiting signs of fatigue and tedium.

Still chugging along in its adorable musical-comedy fashion, the film certainly has its moments, including "Slap That Bass", an engine-room tap routine and - if nothing else - a unique duet followed by a roller-skating waltz in "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off".

Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore are in full form as the comedic side dishes, but this zinger of a plot involving the usual misidentification and love squabbling, is inevitable tiresome. The magic was certainly slipping a bit at this point, but for any fan of the post-jazz musical, Shall We Dance is still safely above-average. [B-]

"CAREFREE" (Mark Sandrich; 1938)

Far more of a screwball comedy than a musical, the slight and flimsy Carefree ('38) will likely bore song-and-dance aficionados and discourage sing-a-longs.

Playing a psychologist, Astaire mingles with the fragile mind of his patient (played by Rogers) who is convinced she's in love with him after a doctor-induced slow-motion dreamscape dance session.

A perky dance routine set to "The Yam" feels claustrophobic and diminished and "Change Partners", the obligatory Fred Astaire crooner, can't carry the load by itself. Even the most staunch admirers can't help but feel underwhelmed and ultimately frustrated by this lax, nutty and musically-challenged addition to the canon. [C]

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Grits and TCM

Ate breakfast at B&J's American Cafe this morning and it was just wonderful - a nostalgic little family-owned cafe since 1940 which has just undergone a complete makeover to preserve and reinstall the look and feel of the place as it was over 60 years ago. The place is a fully functioning 50's antique diner.

They even have a massive jukebox with Elvis and Doris Day tracks on it, classic movie posters on the wall and TCM tuned in in the back. (Seriously, how great is that?) I ordered two eggs, three strips of bacon, wheat toast, American fries and a $2.29 side of grits.

Monday, June 28, 2010

No Powdered Sugar?

I ate breakfast this morning at Archie's, a local 24-hour diner just a notch beyond downtown LaPorte, Indiana (a sprawling metropolis if there ever was one). The place was full of senior citizens and Joe the Plumber's and it smelled like an ashtray with the faint aroma of toilet water, but the French Toast ($3.45) was great - go figure. (Although they didn't sprinkle the toast with powdered sugar, sad.)

I also just watched Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar ('53) and found it oppressively stuffy and stagey and histrionic. Sure, it's really well-acted and shot in a first-rate fashion, but who wants to watch a drab, slavish recreation of Shakespeare? I sure don't. Any movie that diminishes Deborah Kerr's presence to a mere footnote deserves a sliver of disapproval.

Summer Regards: Kiss Me Kate, Calamity Jane

"KISS ME KATE" (George Sidney; 1953)

A mostly agreeable combination of screwball plotting and song-and-dance, George Sidney's Kiss Me Kate ('53), based on the Cole Porter Broadway play of the same name, is one of those musicals-within-a-musical that offers a backstage pass to reveal highly contemptuous romances and shoestring production.

Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, playing former husband and wife, are the two leads in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, but a mix-up involving money being owed to the mafia and a botched delivery of a bouquet of flowers, the show is in danger of losing its leading actress.

The contested relationship between Keel and Grayson soon begins to blend into Shakespeare's source material, providing both dramatic irony and genuine hilarity. Eventually, the film comes up short of greatness for the simple reason that the drama backstage proves to be far more enduring than the show being performed on it. [B]

"CALAMITY JANE" (David Butler; 1953)

A whip-crackin' western musical that's both suffocatingly perky and endearingly amusing, Calamity Jane is ultimately well-meaning mythological hokum.

Doris Day, with her masculine demeanor and her darn-tootin' Black Hills accent, is mostly a drag - dippy and irritating. Rather, it's the sweet and coy presence of Allyn McLerie as the aspiring saloon singer Katie Brown that makes the lasting impression in a performance that's both timidly sexy and surely comedic. [C+]

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Eateries, Musicals

Summer Regards: Sit, Keel!


Like a jolly, live-action Snow White, Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a flexible, sunny, saccharine frontier-musical where high-stepping and operatic crooning is as prominent and as imperative as chopping wood.

Howard Keel plays the eldest of seven ruffian brothers who all need wives and are willing to do whatever it takes to get them, even if it means strapping them unwillingly to their backs and hauling them off to the mountains.

The musical numbers are airy and frivolous, but Michael Kidd's grueling choreography steals the show enough so as to avoid suffocating us in the film's hokey lumberjack love psalms. [B-]

"EASTER PARADE" (Charles Walters; 1948)

A delightful little rags-to-riches pink-fluttered Broadway musical, Easter Parade unites Fred Astaire with Judy Garland on the dance floor and manages to freshly approach a shopworn story about a young girl who's coaxed and transformed into a Broadway star.

Looking mostly rejuvenated, comedically on-point and far less comatose than in Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate ('48), Garland is wonderful here, with a few standout numbers including "I Want To Go Back To Michigan" and the title track, "Easter Parade".

Not considered a top-shelf classic in its genre, Easter Parade does feel marginally produced at times in the song-and-dance department, but it's another irresistibly funny and swooning love story starring - not a couple of swells - but a couple of stars in the twilight of their careers. [B+]

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Summer Regards: They Drive By Night, Kitty Foyle

"THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT" (Raoul Walsh; 1940)

What starts off as a crime-labeled The Grapes of Wrath meets The Wages of Fear soon becomes enveloped in film noir trappings in this Depression-era potboiler starring George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and Ida Lupino.

Following two brothers who risk their lives transporting loads of produce across the country for mere dollars, this journey feels like an episode of Farm Road Truckers. Once they settle down unintentionally after a bad accident, they meet a prosperous old friend and his scheming, vixenish wife (Lupino).

She's the definition of a femme fatale, but luckily for George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, this is more of a precursor to film noir, more content with optimism and a happy story. They Drive By Night is a bit aimless, but once Lupino's hellish tirades ensue, it noticeably and confidently kicks up a notch. [B]

"KITTY FOYLE" (Sam Wood; 1940)

Ginger Rogers won her only Oscar for this non-musical based on Christopher Morley's 1939 novel of the same name about a white-collar woman growing up in Philadelphia and moving to New York.

It's a classic "woman's picture" and social drama about Kitty, who grows up idolizing the high society main liners only to fall in love with one (Dennis Morgan) and struggle with the class differences involved in such a romance.

Rogers is wonderful in the title role, deserving of every accolade, but the film is a bit too amenable and sluggishly serious. [B-]

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Summer Regards: Fred and Ginger

"THE GAY DIVORCEE" (Mark Sandrich; 1934)

A really delightful, sweet and peppy beginning to the tux-and-coattail musicals pairing the delightful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, The Gay Divorcee ('34) features a lively fusion of screwball comedy misreckoning and slick, toe-tapping synchronizations.

The two leads are irresistible, but the supporting cast of Alice Brady, Eric Blore and especially Edward Everett Horton supply a good dose of the tongue-tied whimsy.

The twenty-minute show-stopper comes courtesy of "The Continental," an original song which took home the first Oscar of its kind and gives us some sweet Ginger Rogers lyrics. Betty Grable even shows up to sing "Let's Knock Knees" in one of the film's few numbers granting our two stars a breather - fortunately for us, they come back. [A-]

"TOP HAT" (Mark Sandrich; 1935)

Perhaps the greatest of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, Top Hat ('35) is sheer perfection from top-to-bottom, combining the witty, screwy misidentification of The Gay Divorcee ('34) and hinting at some of the more elaborate dance numbers in Swing Time ('36).

Irving Berlin's brilliant score and songwriting provide Top Hat with the best soundtrack of any Astaire and Rogers production, including the titular "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Cheek to Cheek" with my personal favorite "The Piccolino," in which Rogers playfully plucks at air and sings along, closing out the film in grandiose faux-Italiano style.

Of course, the film closely resembles the plot to The Gay Divorcee and even returns almost the entire cast in their respective roles, yet we have no problem seeing the events unfold similarly. We've fallen in love with these characters before, but with those songs and that graceful tapping, it's love all over again. [A]

"SWING TIME" (George Stevens; 1936)

Regarded as one of the best of the Astaire and Rogers collaborations, Swing Time ('36) is undoubtedly an impressively choreographed ride, but it lacks the charming banter, the screwball insanity and the supporting cast of its predecessors.

Jerome Kern's score and musical numbers hit some highs like on the instantly recognizable smash-hit, "The Way You Look Tonight" and the cutesy "A Fine Romance," but it's Astaire who carries the instrumental "Bojangles of Harlem" tribute in a showstopper dance sequence in which Astaire pays homage to Bill Robinson while tapping in front of - and antagonizing - a trio of his own shadows.

The finale, the well-oiled "Never Gonna Dance" fills out the proceedings, but Swing Time never feels as giddily endearing or as saccharinely chipper as Top Hat or even The Gay Divorcee. [B]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review: Knight and Day (2010)

James Mangold's formal and shiny Knight and Day is also slack and unavoidably ridiculous. It pairs two illustrious, sparkling yet aging megastars and drops them off in a middling, globetrotting spectacle of exotic locales and loony spy-thriller trappings.

It works best in the early moments when an efficient mystery man named Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) - with his sly smile and off-hand submissions - nips at the heels of a ditsy blond (Cameron Diaz) who's just trying to get home for her sister's wedding.

Of course, it's soon revealed why Roy keeps having to instinctively dismantle all manners of opposition in the presence of his new dame - and thus why a disinterested Viola Davis and Peter Sarsgaard keep frowning and sulking in their new suits - but the surprise is a downer that neither a remote island getaway or a Spanish motorbike pursuit can obscure.

From the opening airport entanglement to the cafe stand-off and subsequent freeway chase, this early portion zings and jabs in that mostly comforting action-comedy sizzle, yet once all ambiguities and alliances are resolved and the purpose for all of the hat-and-sunglasses covertness revealed, Knight and Day becomes something much more staunchly second-rate and perfunctory - frankly, it's a bore. [C]

Fred and Ginger

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shot in the Dark

I pretty much loathed Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory ('39) because it's an overcooked, histrionic melodrama that more or less sulks and pouts for 104 minutes with no general conviction or know how. (At least Jezebel and In This Our Life have, you know, "drama".)

However, I did love this shot that comes early on in the film in which Bette Davis is receiving her guesswork prognosis from the doctor played by George Brent. It's sort of like a Godard shot the way it shrinks its subject and drowns us in her miseries, lasting about ten-to-twelve seconds or so.

Ernest Haller, a Warner Bros. black-and-white regular, is responsible for the lensing.

Review: Toy Story 3 (2010)

Lee Unkrich's Toy Story 3 is a brilliant - and frankly, unexpected - close to the decades-spanning animated series that began sixteen years ago with a little film from the upstart animation studio known as Pixar.

Witty, firm and more exciting than most live-action summer flings, the third installment, like the first two films, carries a hefty quotient of emotional substance into its initial premise of life after playtime and lurking abandonment after obsolescence.

A new entry to the series means more domestic turbulence, more impractical daring, friendly squabbling and yearning plastic characters, yet Toy Story 3 never feels truly needless or extraneous and despite the eleven-year hiatus, these toys feel as alive as ever.

Beginning with our familiar pen pals and their ever-growing owner, Andy, the film sets up the premise with the once puffy-cheeked youngster on his way to college and playland obscurity. After a motherly mix-up, the gang find themselves at the crayola-styled Sunnyside Daycare, where willing children are ready to play for hours on end and they never grow out of it.

Running the place, however, is a fluffy purple bear named Lots-O (Ned Beatty) who smells like strawberries and runs his daycare with the utmost precision. It's this middle section - which is sort of like a toy-store Stalag 17 - that brings up some memorable new faces (Micheal Keaton voicing an effeminately-styled Ken is certainly a standout) and some desperate pleas for domesticity.

Ultimately, these films have always been about the fear of rejection, detachment and antiquity and in Toy Story 3, we have the inevitable confluence of all these anxieties into the immediate present. When it comes right down to it, these toys, good or bad, are just like us - they just want to be wanted. [A-]

Summer Regards: The Clock (1945)

A small-town soldier (Robert Walker) and a secretary (Judy Garland) meet in the hustle and bustle of the big city in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock ('45), a swooning 48-hour love story about fate, time and coincidence.

The film's title isn't just adorably applied in reference to the couple's natural meeting point, but rather an added emphasis on the passing of time and the seconds that bind us to our eventual destination - a time map in a crowd of millions.

For instance, when our two lovebirds separate in the riot-like subway station, ironically enough, it's the clock at the Astor Hotel that brings them back together, as if their paths were in the process of realigning.

In what was essentially Judy Garland's first dramatic role (although I'd argue that she did plenty of the same in Meet Me in St. Louis), the then-23 year-old actress slides nicely into the role of the helpless romantic who doesn't belt a tune.

Meanwhile, Robert Walker, far from his eventual career performance as the psychotic murder in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train ('51), appears to be right off the set of Thirty Seconds to Tokyo ('44) as a convincing Midwestern countrymen. [B+]

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Regards: Angel Face (1952)

In Otto Preminger's simple yet expertly-woven Angel Face ('52), a classic film noir about the trappings of sexual desire, the Austro-Hungarian director takes a fundamental femme fatale plot and turns out something quite extraordinary - hauntingly seductive and deeply felt.

Jean Simmons is cast marvelously against type here as the titular object of affection, a repressed teenager who finds a worthy partner-in-crime in a sly ambulance driver (Robert Mitchum) and spins him into a web of deceit and murder.

What separates Angel Face from other films of its ilk is that desirable performance by Ms. Simmons, who (as we know by those haunting piano strokes) is ultimately up to no good, yet seems to keep fooling the smooth-talking Frank Jessup (Mitchum) at every turn.

In the end, the audience is able to sympathize with Frank, a seemingly ignorant and wrong-footed man, because deep down, we can understand the allure of that angelic face. [A-]

Short Review: The A-Team (2010)

Joe Carnahan's The A-Team is mindless, inoffensive action-movie lunacy of the most disorderly kind. Bounding from one set-piece to the next without any sense of rhythm or aplomb, the experience is akin to watching a movie on fast-forward - or at least one of those "flashes" on Chuck.

In this day and age, the modern action film has evolved into a fusillade of increasingly implausible vehicular manipulations, and The A-Team furthers that development (or rather decline) leaps and bounds. Such physically ignorant agility could be overlooked if the rest of the film wasn't as equally oblivious as that flying tank.

And doubling the disturbing action-front trends are the visual kinetics employed by director Joe Carnahan, cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editors Jim May and Roger Barton, who chop, splice and rattle their way through the numerous exhibitions of high-flying acrobatics and manage to come up with nothing relatively exciting or even remotely comprehensible, and that's all before the "who's on what side" government-military agency plot even picks up steam.

There are some okay performances by Liam Neeson, Sharlto Copley and a slimy, roach-like Patrick Wilson as one of the many crooked agency villains, but on the whole their actions are hardly worth the effort in trying to keep up with the FX department.

Add lucrative special-ops exploits with visual incoherence and narrative coiling and you get a garbled, accelerated and dizzily combustible 21st century action romp. I did laugh a few times, but whether out of genuine amusement or simply disbelief is one matter I'm still unsure of. [C]

Independence Day Clouds

Summer Regards: Out of the Past (1947)

"The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

The best film noirs for me have - and always will be - the ones that emphasize that undying and unseen force that manipulates and acts against our characters, ultimately resulting in an inevitable, hard-luck fate as a product of their line of work, their passionate romances, or their past.

In Jacques Tourneur's landmark noir, Out of the Past ('47), the latter notion, in which the events or mistakes of the past come back to haunt our character, is taken to its most literal degree, foregoing mere subtextual existence and sneaking its way all the way into the title.

Robert Mitchum plays the lead, a gas-station owner who is pulled back into a seedy ring of gamblers, dames and gumshoes after initially leaving the group out of spite and a foiled plot to run away with the ambiguous Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), an old flame of the ringleader, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas).

Brilliantly combining all of the traditional elements of film noir - low-key lighting, futility, femme fatale, seduction, etc. - Daniel Mainwaring's script (based on his own novel) is ultimately one of the best examples of man's inability to re-write his own fate. [A]

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Regards: The Flame and the Arrow (1950)

A medieval-Italian Robin Hood, Jacques Tourneur's The Flame and the Arrow ('50) is breezy, disposable fun, though its acrobatic, swashbuckling defiance in the face of tyranny and damsel-swooning romantics hardly hide its obvious inspiration.

One of French-American director Tourneur's more unbecoming features (he's known for his black-and-white prowess in Cat People and Out of the Past), the film has a few shining qualities in the production department, but it's too hackneyed to fully present itself as a standalone accomplishment.

Burt Lancaster plays the renegade hero who's quick and snappy with a bow (what else?), but I've always thought that he played these roles a little too giddily and exuberantly. As much as he tries to be, he's more Bruce Willis than Errol Flynn.

There are a few standout scenes (like an incognito circus show and a sword duel in the dark) that register beyond the usual peasant uprisings and merry-men hooting, but The Flame and the Arrow is simply a knock-off - diverting, pleasant, cozy even - but a knock-off nonetheless. [B-]

Summer Regards: They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

Errol Flynn is George Custer in Raoul Walsh's They Died With Their Boots On ('41), a decidedly sympathetic take on the controversial General who so infamously gave up his life and the lives of his men in the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Here, Custer is depicted as a flashy, reckless, fortunately blessed military officer as he clumsily rises from West Point cadet to Civil War hero. Wally Kline and Aeneas Mackenzie's script is light on battlefield maneuvers and heavy on gushy romance and the dirty politics and greed which led to the plight of the Native Americans in the West, as Custer is seen leading the protests.

Avoiding both the drab austerity of Michael Curtiz's The Charge of the Light Brigade ('36) and the poignant demythicizing of John Ford's Fort Apache ('48), They Died With Their Boots On does benefit from a dreamy, cozy romance between Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, which momentarily minimizes the inevitable Native American conflict.

History has been nothing if not nebulous to the alignment of Custer's deserved or undeserved glory. They Died With Their Boots On certainly shouldn't convince anyone of the man's true legacy (and as an indefinite statement, it's needlessly long-winded), but somehow it manages to strike a stable balance between shameless glorification and earnest shame towards western expansion. [B-]

Saturday Morning

Downtown Chesterton, Indiana. Taken at about 9:00 am this morning.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer Regards: Key Largo (1948)

Loosely adapted from the 1939 Maxwell Anderson stage play, John Huston's Key Largo ('48) is a ratchet-tight one-set psychological film noir about selflessness and sticking your neck out in the face of oppression, evil and cruelty and all that jazz.

Taking place entirely inside and around a Florida Keys hotel during a hurricane, the film is owned by Edward G. Robinson's performance as the notorious gangster Johnny Rocco, who is holed up inside, keeping the hotel owner (Lionel Barrymore), his daughter (Lauren Bacall) and a Army veteran (Humphrey Bogart) at his mercy.

Of course, it's a classic Bogart role and performance (as another cynical practitioner of self-preservation who sees a sudden change of heart), as John Huston's slick direction and smooth accompanying dialogue make sweet music throughout. Even Claire Trevor's washed-up, alcoholic dive singer (an Oscar winning performance) has a moment or two in the spotlight - including a humiliating a cappella crooning for the promise of a glass of whiskey - and she nails them.

An identity swap involving a main character actually severely hinders the impact of the finale, but this is still a poignant, balmy practice in psychological power-plays with a stunning cast. Think of a more expansive version of The Petrified Forest ('37), only with Bogart now taking his turn as the heroic hostage. [A-]

Lunch and Noir

Summer Regards: Dark Passage (1947)

This Warner Bros. film noir, a follow up to The Big Sleep ('46), is a commendable, technically affluent potboiler in the first half, but this Delmer Daves penned screenplay (based on the 1946 David Goodis novel) is too unspectacular to merit the talents of its cast.

The proceeding romp entails the journey of an escaped convict (Humphrey Bogart) who runs into a willing accomplice (Lauren Bacall) and seeks reconstructive facial surgery to alter his appearance both physically and metaphorically, as he sets out to prove his innocence.

The first forty-five minutes are shot almost entirely from a first-person point-of-view, as Bogart's face doesn't even appear until the one-hour mark. (His stream-of-consciousness narration serves to hold us over.) The effect is a bit of a double-edged sword - by turns dazzling and detrimental - for it provides both virtuoso camerawork and limited screen-time for our chiseled protagonist.

And once the camera becomes complacently third-person, Dark Passage wilts a tad under its stable but insubstantial plotting. Perhaps the biggest swerve from the road is the one that surprises us with its optimism. Nevertheless, the ride is nervy and engaging, registering as a middleweight Bogart vehicle, preceded and followed by better efforts. [B]

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Short Review: Splice (2010)

Advertised as a genetic freakshow monster-flick, Vincenzo Natali's Splice is actually something far more darkly peculiar and creepily absorbing. It still chugs too much like an icky genre schlocker at times, but for the willing participant, it's that rare horror film that eschews cheap thrills in favor of discomforting topicality and psychological debilitation.

Like a recently discovered David Cronenberg effort from thirty years ago, Splice takes a reasonably familiar horror formula and turns it on its head, morphing into a disturbing resource of violence and sexual physicality, not to mention social concern.

Like Videodrome (which loosely examined the effects of raw violence on television), Splice similarly deals in the 21st century realm of genetic science and its disturbing future. Rather than simply crafting a slasher, it's fortunately a lot smarter and a lot more distinguished.

Unexpectedly, just as the film giddily taps into those dark, treacherously unsettling waters, it reverts back to its genre casing, limping to a mute, dishonest and predictable conclusion that was set up an hour ago. Such a folly could be excused more readily had the rest of the film in question been as proportionately vapid and tasteless - we'll take what we can get. [B-]

Summer Regards: Adam's Rib (1949)

The greatest thing about George Cukor's Adam's Rib ('49) is the way that it manages to prematurely address gender equality and women's rights and do it in a way that's unfussy and delicately comedic.

Katharine Hepburn, who would constantly play roles in which her chiseled features and self-confidence threatened to dominate her male co-stars, is perfect here in one of her better comedic roles and films.

Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, the screenplay (a deserved Oscar nominee) is based on a real-life court case in which a woman was tried for assault after catching her husband's deceit first-hand. Hepburn's Amanda Bonner is the defendant while Spencer Tracy's Adam prosecutes in this definitive battle-of-the-sexes.

Adam's Rib isn't a howler or anything, but it's a brave film that only becomes more relevant with each passing year. It also features two noteworthy appearances by Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday, Bells Are Ringing) and Jean Hagen (Singin' in the Rain). [B+]

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hometown Heroes

LaPorte High School (located about 15-20 miles southeast of Michigan City) has one of the oddest mascots/team names I've heard, so I just had to take a picture.

Summer Regards: Last Train From Gun Hill (1959)

In yet another excellent John Sturges western, Last Train from Gun Hill ('59) reunites Kirk Douglas with the pop-Western stylist in this hazy, poignant revenge tale.

Douglas plays Matt Morgan, a Sheriff stricken by tragedy after the rape and murder of his Native American wife. A saddle from the perpetrator's horse reveals his identity - the son of Matt's best of old friends, Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).

The film deftly mixes Sturges' pension for widescreen splendor, the thin bond between family and friendship and the futility of law and order through small-town hysteria. In the latter sense, Last Train From Gun Hill readily recalls 3:10 to Yuma and Sturges' own Bad Day at Black Rock. It's one taut, protean piece of entertainment. [B+]

Criterion Donen

I was really excited to see a Blu-ray version of Stanley Donen's Charade ('63) included in their recent September line-up announced yesterday, which will serve as a high-def update to the excellent '04 DVD that saved the film from public domain ugliness.

Of course everyone knows that Charade is a Hitchcock knock-off of the highest order, but it's also one of the best - if not the best - attempts at capturing the sexually playful international thriller formula that was defined by Hitch in films like The 39 Steps ('35), To Catch a Thief ('55) and North by Northwest ('59).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summertime Clothes

I arrived at Michigan City, Indiana late Sunday night and have been trying to catch up on sleep and movies and fun times ever since, all the while unpacking and recalibrating, etc.

I watched John Sturges' Last Train From Gun Hill ('59) this morning, and expect to get down to business with some other stuff rented from the impeccable Michigan City Public Library soon.

I'll keep most posts short and sweet (2-3 paragraphs), and will probably cut back on full-length reviews, as well. On the contemporary front, I will likely seen Joe Carnahan's The A-Team and Vincenzo Natali's Splice sometime in the next week or so.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Movie Lull

I have the World Cup and Transfer Orientation (all day yesterday) to thank for not writing anything since Wednesday. There's also the matter of having nothing of substance to see either in the art-house or mutiplex realms.

Then tomorrow morning, we take a 16-hour drive north to Michigan City, Indiana where all of my extended family spends the summer whenever they can. For the drive (when I'm not behind the wheel), I'll be watching George Sidney's Scaramouche ('52), Raoul Walsh's They Died With Their Boots On ('42) and Jacques Tourneur's The Flame and the Arrow ('50).

Once at the desired port of call, the movie thing picks up big-time. The Michigan City Public Library is probably one of the greatest classic movie mecca's ever built.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

WWII #14: Stalag 17 (1953)

"STALAG 17" (Billy Wilder, 1953)
Paramount Pictures, 120 mins.

A stripped-down, comical and sophisticated prisoner-of-war mystery, Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 ('53) concerns the matter of an unknown informant in barracks four of the titular German prison camp - most believe it's a cynical swindler named Sefton (William Holden), but he's committed to proving otherwise.

Among the stable of goons and loons are a mute named Joey (Robinson Stone), a spoiled Lieutenant (Don Taylor), a confrontational stiff (Neville Brand) and a pair of stooges named "Animal" (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck). They're goofy and a tad too relevant, but Wilder (also a co-writer) manages to make even these buffoons appropriately-sketched and eventually, wholly likeable.

Meanwhile, William Holden's Sefton, who welcomes suspicion with his privileged dealings outside of the barracks and his cigarette-trading rackets, is a classic movie cool-guy with his lumberjack hat and derisive cracks. Even his inevitable vindication doesn't lead to a drastically different mode of self-preservation.

And that revelatory scene, in which the real mole's identity is revealed, just happens to be a knockout and one of Wilder's finest accomplishments. Ironically set to a human train of prisoners bellowing about the barracks chanting, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," the scene is a masterly reveal, with Holden's J.J. Sefton lurking bedside as the swinging of a lightbulb alerts his attention.

Similar to the way that Billy Wilder used Erich von Stroheim in the excellent Egypt-set WWII thriller Five Graves to Cairo ('43)to portray General Rommel, the portly Otto Preminger subs in for the playfully sardonic Nazi commandant Von Scherbach in a memorable supporting turn.

Though significantly less propagandist, Stalag 17 bears many similarities to Five Graves to Cairo with its goofily hazardous plotting and Nazi bewilderment. Both films are compelling wartime yarns, but there isn't any question which one Sefton would go for. [A-]

WWII #13: The Guns of Navarone (1961)

"THE GUNS OF NAVARONE" (J. Lee Thompson, 1961)
Columbia Pictures, 157 mins.

Based on a novel by Alistair MacLean (published in 1957, the same year The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in theaters), J. Lee Thompson's The Guns of Navarone ('61) is a standout in the momentary spike of large-scale WWII epics released in the early-to-late 1960's. It's worldwide box-office success and team-based covert-ops formula opened the door for such films as The Dirty Dozen ('67), Where Eagles Dare ('68) and Kelly's Heroes ('70).

Set in the Greek isles in and around the Aegean Sea, the film has a salty, coastal draft that is all too rare for a WWII action film. The Grecian setting - which results in an unsuspected typography over the opening credits - grants the film a distinctive visual stamp delivered home by Oswald Morris' warm, seascape lensing.

Tasked with scaling a cliff and making their way to the titular German guns (which are staring down helpless British vessels in the Aegean), Capt. Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a fluent German speaker and skilled climber, is persuaded to lead the group, consisting of specialized task-masters including a demolitions expert (David Niven) and a ruthless killer with a tragic past (Anthony Quinn).

As in Where Eagles Dare (that excellent film later penned for the screen by MacLean himself), The Guns of Navarone depicts men traversing a ruthless environment behind enemy lines under seemingly impossible odds - full of stealth, treachery and escapability.

And although the film is ultimately the story of triumph and heroism, there's also a delightful sting of futility throughout, as our unlikely squad of heroes openly question their importance and impact in the grand scheme. ("I've been on a hundred jobs and not one of them has altered the course of the war!")

Above all, it's the frustration, resiliency and triumph of collaboration between men that drives all of MacLean's material, in particular The Guns of Navarone. The struggle between morality and mission success brewing inside of Peck's Capt. Mallory arguably provides as many thrills as the film's numerous action scenes. [A-]