"Desperate Journey" (Warner, 1942)
An amiable WWII propaganda fantasy starring Errol Flynn as the leader of a small group of Allied bomber pilots downed behind German lines, who are trying to get home, but can't help making monkeys of the Nazis and wreaking endless sabotage havoc before they do. Ronald Reagan, who I'll reluctantly admit was pretty charismatic, is Flynn's sidekick; also stars Colonel Klink, uh, I mean Raymond Massey, as the blustering SS officer who pursues them across the countryside after they escape his evil clutches. The film is notable for the extensive use of real German throughout, as well as the hopeful fiction of an anti-Nazi German underground which helps the men escape. Reagan gets to mow down dozens of German soldiers in the climactic final battle; I think this may have been one of those Hollywood films he mistook for reality in some speech he gave as President, talking about what he "did" during World War II. Anyway, this film is fast moving and enjoyable, even if hastily produced and improbably plotted. A goofy wartime action-fest.
"Curse of the Cat People" (RKO, 1944)
The sequel to the original Val Lewton horror film, Cat People is disappointing in that it doesn't follow up on the growl-slash-bite were-cat premise at all (opting, instead, to stick to the "it was all in her head" version of the story). Otherwise, though, this one's a winner. Kent Smith reprises his role as the all-too-rational modern man, Mr. Reed, who is now a husband and father, having married the "other woman" from the previous film, Jane Randolph. Things are just peachy, except that their daughter has somehow picked up on the weird vibe that plagues their family, and becomes pyschically linked to what appears to be the ghost of the dead cat lady from the first film (played again by Simone Simon.) The drearily sensible, scientific-psychological perspective dukes it out with the fantastical-supernatural viewpoint: we the audience are encouraged to root for the ghost story explanation, as the filmmakers provide some brilliant, spooky visual cues to accompany the little girl's altered state of mind. Young Ann Carter is quite good as the daughter. Not your standard-issue horror movie, yet very definitely recommended!
"Reign Of Fire" (Touchstone, 2002)
A remarkably bad monster movie... I picked this up despite having heard it wasn't all that good, and while I enjoyed seeing the cool dragon special effects, I have to admit this film was kind of lame. The plot, that human civilization is all but wiped out when the long-dormant dragon species comes out of its long hibernation, and must be saved by a deperate, straggling band of scrappy survivors, is explained to us in a series of painfully belabored, exposition-heavy monologues. For some reason the action is set in the UK, even though no one in the film can even approximate a halfway decent English or Scottish accent, and big chunks of the plot simply make no sense. (The dragons breed like flies, quickly taking over the world, and yet humans are able to triumph by killing off the single male of the species... These lizards never give birth to boys? Plus... they eat the ashes produced by their fire? Then why did they kill all the humans?) Anyway, the single most irritating factor of the film is Matthew McConaughey's clumsy scenery chewing, as the bald-headed, cigar chomping American military jock who shows up to show the spunky Scots how to really deal with the pesky flying lizards. His Robert Duvall wannabee act is a drag, and brings what little momentum the film has to a screeching halt. The special effects are cool, but the film is a prime example of Hollywood gone wrong, another over-bloated project where someone thinks, "oh well, so maybe the movie has started to suck, but no one will care about the acting once they see the CGI..." Well, here's news for you guys: we do care. There's really no excuse to let a movie fall apart like this, and as a fan of dopey dragon films, I was sorely disappointed.
"The Seventh Victim" (RKO)
Another Val Lewton movie, a psychological thriller about a bunch of devil worshippers out to round up their next victim. Sort of like a trial run for Rosemary's Baby, but kinda wimpy and unscary, in the final analysis. Not a lot of action, but some nice B&W cinematography.
"Car Wash" (1976)
I first saw this film when it came out in the theatres... I was ten (you do the math...) and it was one of those transgressive '70s comedies that all the kids in 5th and 6th grade were psyched to sneak into the theatres to see, all filled with sex and drugs and cuss words. I rented it recently because I was in the mood for some '70s exploit-o-kitsch, and was quite surprised at how much depth the film actually had. Written by future Hollywood honcho Joel Schumacher, Car Wash is a tragedy that masquerades as a farce, capturing the antics of a dozen clownish, stereotypical losers during a single day spent scrubbing cars at a grimy Los Angeles car wash. They lighten their work day through pranks, daydreams, slapstick and even a little bit of sex, drugs and sweet, funky music. (The theme song by Rose Royce remains one of the best disco-era pop tunes.) Behind the comedic facade, though, lies an earnest exploration of the sadness of a truly dead-end job, and by the film's end, its true heroes are revealed as Abdullah (Bill Duke), an angry, humorless African-American Muslim who is the butt of everyone else's jokes, and Lonnie, the underpaid, ex-con foreman of the gang, who are the only ones facing up to the harshness of their economic situation. They're just trying to hang on to their dignity and not slip through the cracks, while all the other guys have pretty much given up, or just don't care. Admittedly, there's an whiff of condescention to the script, and a film-schoolish formalism to its dualistic structure, but there's also a surprisingly sincere, substantive human element. What seems like a loosely woven series of Saturday Night Live- style, sketches is actually kind of a painful film at heart. Interestingly enough, the taboo titillations that drew us kiddies to the film back in the day are actually the parts that don't hold up -- George Carlin's episodic gag routines as a foul-mouthed cabbie tracking down a prostitute who skipped out on her fare all fall flat: there's no there there. (Richard Pryor, however, turns in a nice, succinct cameo as a flashy, pimp-suited televangelist who takes his stretch limo through the carwash, and spars with Abdullah about his supposed obligations to the community...) At any rate, the swearing and crass sex gags have largely lost their power to shock (what sounded so nasty back in '76 seems pretty tame now, in comparison to what you can see on TV or even in PG films...) but the film itself is still worth checking out. It captures a certain slice of the 'Seventies, a low-key, unassuming grittiness that didn't rely on the shock tactics of the era's crime films and yet gives us a pretty honest picture of what folks were going through back in a decade of recession, disillusionment and indulgence.
"The Long Night" (RKO, 1947)
Ouch. This is definitely one of the worst film noirs I've ever seen. Henry Fonda almost pulls off his role as a befuddled, plainspoken everyman, named Joe, who finds himself holed up in an apartment room, with all the cops in the state ready to gun him down, after he has shot an oily, philandering heel (played by Vincent Price) who's been moving in on his gal. The murder scene kicks the film off, and then it's back into exposition-heavy flashback after exposition-heavy flashback to find out what happened. The problem lies mostly with the script, which is wretchedly vague and super-talky, as well as with the sloppy direction by Anatole Litvak, who seems to have been running at a pretty fast clip, with little time to shoot scenes over or smooth out the details. Also, Fonda's co-star, Barbara Bel Geddes, is easily one of the most shrill and genuinely irritating actors imaginable: her hysterical, incoherent screeching at the end of the film has a certain naturalism about it (her boyfriend's about to get killed), but it certainly doesn't carry the intended dramatic punch... You just want her to stop yelling so much. It's really just a poorly realized film, with terrible character development, hammy acting, a lurching plotline, and remarkably bad sound design. Fonda has his magnetic moments, but that's about it. You can definitely skip this one.
"Ca Twiste A Popinguine" (1993)
A charming, fascinating look at the growth of Senegal's popular culture, and the influence of rival colonial cultures, American and French, on the teenagers of a tiny seaside village. One camp is into American-style R&B, while the other idolizes French teen singers like Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan. This nostalgia-drenched Senegalese comedy, directed by Moussa Sene Absa, has the feel of a genuine memoir, and a ring of authenticity, and is a fascinating glimpse into the growth of European-style pop culture inside of modern-day Africa. Funny and engaging, although neither the direction and script are particularly skillful. Nice taste of independent African filmmaking, too.
"Talk To Her" (2003)
Pedro Almodovar's latest dark comedy, about two men in love with women who are in comas, is as odd and allegorical as anything he's ever done. I have to admit, I wasn't quite able to make the leap past the disturbing part of the surface story -- I took it too literally and too seriously -- but I was thrilled and surprised to see Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso appear in the middle of the film, to croon a beautiful version of the old song "Cucurrucucu Paloma," and the other references to Brazilian music laced throughout the film. Nice opening sequence with dancer Pina Bausch, as well. Ah, Europe! [At the Piedmont Theatre.]
"La Vie Est Belle (Life Is Rosy)" (1987)
An intriguing, whimsical tale of the underside of the West African music industry... Real-life pop idol Papa Wemba stars as a down-and-out village griot who goes to the big city in search of fame and finds himself working as a menial servant in a rich man's mansion, tending to wealth amid the immense poverty of Kinsasha. A nice glimpse of life in comtemporary Kenya, a bustling yet still rustic society, with modern material goods within arm's reach, yet still deeply steeped in an informal, relaxed local culture in which everyone knows everyone else and is intimately familiar with their personal business, and even long-simmering rivalries are laughed off as village gossip. It's sort of like a less-grim, less violent version of The Harder They Come, in which the stakes are neither so high nor so exaggerated. I'd only heard a few, rather overproduced Papa Wemba songs before, and wasn't too impressed... But I have to say I found his on-screen persona to be pretty charming, and now my curiousity has been piqued. [Borrowed from the Berkeley Public Library.]
"Don't Look Back" (Columbia, 1966)
D. A. Pennebaker's groundbreaking music documentary tracks Bob Dylan through his 1965 tour of England, as the aloof, intense young poet-singer wrestles with his own growing celebrity and the obstinate demands of a media-hungry public. Shot in grainy, sometimes murkily naturalistic B&W, Don't Look Back perfectly captures Dylan's gangly, sexy cool, and shows his smouldering, ironic intelligence bursting out at every turn, as he spars with the media, manages his entourage and hangers-on, and brilliantly performs his latest songs. The film's most notorious sequence comes as Dylan entertains a callow Donovan Leitch in his hotel room, and the two face off in a "friendly" match of musical show-and-tell. Donovan, who was being built up in the Fleet Street press as a British Dylan, leads off and is a transparent copycat, clearly aping Dylans most minute mannerisms and intonations. His song, while pleasant and moderately clever, is all surface, and as the camera pans between him and his mentor (an older folkie pal of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, whom Dylan duly acknowledges), eventually settling on Dylan, restless yet impassive, as he knows what it about to come. After Donovan finishes his song, Dylan stands up and asks to borrow the guitar (he has to tug on it a little bit; Donovan knows what's about to happen as well...) then sits back down and launches into a withering version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Dylan's eyes glitter with impish but absolute vengance. Donovan nervously struggles to maintain a semblance of nonchalance -- and the battle is over before it's even begun. The film also shows Dylan's infamous business manager, rock entrepreneur Albert Grossman, in action: cool, calculating and enviably ruthless. All in all, this is a stunning portrait of Dylan as his career really took form, as well as a charming glimpse at the mop-topped hipsters of Swinging London and environs. Plus, it's got the brilliant video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues," with Allan Ginsburg kibbitzing in the background. An absolute must-see for music fans.
"The Bourne Identity" (Columbia, 2002)
This film wasn't as bad as some folks said, although it's true that there's nothing at all surprising or unexpected at any point in the plot, except maybe how many careless errors Matt Damon's super-killer spy-dude character makes as he's trying to figure out who's trying to kill him, and why he's lost his memory. Chris Cooper is kinda wasted as the heavy, a mean, shadow-governmenty black-ops mastermind who has to rub Bourne out to erase his own mistakes. But the gal from Run Lola Run proves she still has an immensely appealing and somewhat elusive charisma. Worth it for a mindless rental night, though there are much better movies out there.
"You And Me" (Paramount, 1938)
A truly offbeat proto-noir crime comedy directed by German film pioneer Fritz Lang at the start of his Hollywood tenure. George Raft and Silvia Sidney co-star as star-crossed lovers who meet while working in a large New York department store whose president believes in hiring ex-cons as a way to help them socially rehabilitate themselves. Raft is an ex-felon whose probation has just ended, and he feels that now, at last, he can find love and marriage. What he doesn't know, though, is that his bride, Sidney, is also an ex-criminal, and when she discovers his distain for "female jailbirds," she goes to great lengths to hide the truth from him. As a result, he hardens again, and finds himself drawn again towards the criminal lifestyle. The film mixes elements of dark drama and screwball comedy, even mixing in an avant garde sensibility in a few odd musical sketches. There interludes are provided by composer Kurt Weill, also in Hollywood exile, and stand out, not unpleasantly, in a most bizarre fashion from the rest of the film. Also noteworthy is the kooky, deliberately anticlimactic ending, in which Silvia Sidney teaches the crooks, literally teaches them, that "crime does not pay." In dramatic terms, the film is uneven, but as an experimental work, it's quite fascinating. Definitely worth checking out.
"Flying Down To Rio" (RKO, 1933)
The very first Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film... and definitely one of the best! Ironically, Rogers and Astaire play second fiddle to the "exotic" Dolores Del Rio (who is actually not so bad this time around, and definitely more believable as a Brazilian hottie than as a Polynesian nymph...) Anyway, this film has got it all: a snappy, funny script, an excellent cast, crazy Art Deco sets, fabulous music (thank you, Vincent Youmans and Gus Kahn!) and some surprisingly, scandalously sexy outfits (as well as many that are absolutely garish... the designer had a thing for giant, poofed-up sleeves). The dancing is not, frankly, that dazzling, but Fred & Ginger do get to strut their stuff, and each is cute and charming in their inimitable way. This film is also interesting for its spin on the whole let's-go-to-a-funny-exotic-locale plotline: the Brazilians are portrayed with reasonable dignity, and there's a great scene where Astaire and his jazz band check out the local competition playing "The Carioca," and conclude that the Brazilians can blow them out of the water. The erotic dance sequence that accompanies this scene is brilliantly filmed and very creative. And wait'll you get a load of the climactic airplane show, with dozens of chorines dancing on the wings as the onlookers gape below... Now, THAT'S entertainment!
"Rhapsody In Blue: The George Gershwin Story" (MGM, 1945)
Robert Alda stars in this odd, melodramatic potboiler which looks at the rags-to-rich (and more riches) rise of one of America's greatest popular composers. The film is hampered by a few small points, one being that Gershwin's life doesn't readily lend itself to dramatic portrayal (until the very end, when he drops dead at a very young age, and your jaw just drops)... The problem is that guy was just too darn successful! He hit a groove and never stopped, moving from one huge critical success to another (with one or two flops in between)... The scriptwriters were obviously aware of this, and insert several belabored sequences wherein Gershwin anguishes over this or that, and a couple of sniffly, symbolic deathbed scenes, just for good measure. Other problems include Alda himself (yes, he's Alan's dad...) who isn't completely up to the role, as well as the weak portrayal of George's brother Ira, a super-brilliant, super-important lyricist, who is here presented as a mere hanger-on and cheerleader for his brother, the big-shot genius. Hello? Excuse me... Ira Gershwin?!? Of the Gershwin brothers? Oh, forget it. Oh, also check out Gershwin's kooky pal Oscar Levant, who plays himself, in a somewhat true-to-life portrayal as George's confidant and stand-in concertizer. Other celebrities who play themselves here include Al Jolson and bandleader Paul Whiteman... and the music, of course, can't be beat.
"Talk Of The Town" (Columbia, 1942)
A manic, mile-a-minute screwball comedy starring Jean Arthur as a sassy, loveable every-gal who has to hide her ne'er-do-well boyfriend (Cary Grant) from the law after he escapes from jail to escape the death penalty (or lynching) for a crime he didn't commit. Seems he's some kind of free-thinker (anarchist, really) who asked too many questions about his capitalist boss, and wound up framed for the murder of his foreman, and the burning of the factory he worked in. As if THAT weren't complicated and far-fetched enough, add in Ronald Coleman, as a prospective Supreme Court judge who just HAPPENS to be the new tenant at Jean's villa, the week that Grant holes up in the attic. The comedy hinges on Arthur's Lucy-like attempts to hide the fugitive without Coleman catching on; the movie itself is meant to hinge on the Capra-esque, leftie-populist plot. Doesn't quite gel, but it is a weird and interesting time capsule, sort of a leftover from the 'Thirties, when socially-conscious films like this were more common (and less out of place; WWII really changed the face of Hollywood, and this seems like something that got left on the shelf a little too long.) Not Arthur's best performance, but Grant has some choice moments sparring intellectually with Coleman's idealistic barrister.
"Monsoon Wedding" (2002)
Another charming film by Mira Nair, portraying a kooky, sprawling Indian family as it prepares for a long-awaited and lavish wedding. There are all kinds of cross-generational, cross-caste and cross-cultural issues to be hashed out, as well as a hidden family secret or two. Engaging and heartfelt. Nice.
"Swing Time" (RKO, 1936)
A perfectly charming Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers comedy, with Fred as a ne'er-do-well bandleader who needs to raise a big bundle of dough to make himself an acceptable candidate to marry the daughter of a stuffy business tycoon. The thing is, he's not totally sure he wants to marry her, and when he hits New York City in search of fame and fortune and bumps in to Ginger... Well, that's all she wrote. Interesting interaction between Astaire and his ex, when she shows up and lets him go -- very modern, and not the big catfight you might expect. Includes dance numbers like "Never Gonna Dance," which has the legendary going-up-the-dual-staircase-together routine, and Fred's tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robison, one of the greatest African-American hoofers of all time. Sure, Astaire's in blackface, but whatta gonna do? Another fun, uncomplicated story, and two of the suavest performers ever, putting on a swell show.
"Sherlock Holmes..." (MGM, 1929)
I couldn't remember the exact title of this one, or find it listed online, but its one of the bazillions of Basil Rathbone SH vehicles. This hour-long shortie whizzes along as fast as the train to Scotland where the action takes place. A giant diamond is stolen, a few murders are committed, a story is rushed, and characters are poorly developed. OK, but not great, and not particularly stylish, either. Saw it on PBS.
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