Monthly Archive for December, 2008

The Age of Believing: The Disney Live Action Classics

The Age of Believing: The Disney Live Action Classics (12/21/08) TV-TCM (2008 ***) Written and directed by Peter Fitzgerald. Angela Lansbury narrated this original TCM documentary, which featured interviews with Dean Jones, Hayley Mills, Tommy Kirk, Kurt Russell and many others. The film covered the era of Disney’s live-action films, from Treasure Island (1950) through Tron (1982). Many of these films had a huge impact on the childhoods of people of my generation, films like Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Mary Poppins (1964) and The Love Bug (1968). My main fault with this documentary was there was too much material for a mere 80 minutes. You could make the argument that the subject matter didn’t warrant it, but this film could have easily been expanded to miniseries length, or at least three hours. As it was, the films produced after Walt Disney died got short shrift.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (12/20/08) TV-TCM (1958 ***) Directed by Richard Brooks, based on the play by Tennessee Williams, starring Paul Newman (as Brick), Elizabeth Taylor (as Maggie the Cat), Burl Ives (as Big Daddy) and Jack Carson (as Gooper). What was it with those Southerners and their crazy names, anyhow? I’d seen this movie before, but not in a long time. It’s a classic, of course, with conflict a-plenty and just the barest hint of an homosexual undercurrent thrown in. I’ve never read the original play; it would be interesting to see just how much cleaning up and whitewashing was done in the film version.

Wizard of Oz (1925)

Wizard of Oz (12/19/08) TV-TCM (1925 *½) Directed by Larry Semon, starring Semon as the Toymaker / farmhand / Scarecrow (kind of), Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy and Oliver N. Hardy as the farmhand / Tin Man (sort of). This silent movie represented an era in film history I don’t often visit. I can’t really recommend it, though it was mildly engaging intellectually. For one, it was interesting seeing Oliver Hardy in an early role, prior to his pairing with Stan Laurel. The story was very different from the 1939 Judy Garland Oz to which we’ve become accustomed. Most of the screen time was taken up by long gag sequences, the kind of gags that are now clichés of the silent movie era. Unfortunately, those sequences did nothing to advance the story, what little story there was.

Werewolf of London

Werewolf of London (12/18/08) Netflix (1935 **½) Directed by Stuart Walker, starring Henry Hull as Dr. Glendon and Warner Oland as Dr. Yogami. A botanist in the Himalayas, searching for a rare Tibetan flower is attacked by a… guess what? He returns to London with a scar, a plant, and a blood disease. I had never seen this classic film before. Released by Universal Studios, it followed Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (also 1931) and pre-dated Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man (1941) by six years. It wasn’t as compelling as any of those films, however, and I think I know why: Hull’s character simply was not sympathetic, and our introduction to him was muddled; it wasn’t until the story moved to London that I was even certain he was the main character.

It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life (12/17/08) TV-NBC (1946 ****) Directed by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. It still surprises me that this classic film wasn’t more popular when it was first released. At 130 minutes, it was a long film, and the story structure was unusual: The first two-thirds of the film were really just setup for the remainder. Still, the universal message (“Each life touches many others.”) is just as relevant sixty years later as it was the day it was released. In hard economic times like these, it’s worth remembering that even if our lives haven’t always turned out the way we expected, there are a lot of things to be thankful for, and our lives are all precious gifts.

Magic

Magic (12/13/08) TV-AMC (1978 **½) Directed by Richard Attenborough, screenplay by William Goldman (based on his novel), starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margaret and Burgess Meredith. Goldman wrote his fair share of great movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President’s Men (1976) and The Princess Bride (1987). Magic was not quite on the same level as some of his other work. Its main cinematic challenge was this: Just how much menace could a ventriloquist’s dummy manifest? The key to making that problematic premise work was Hopkins, who delivered a surprisingly convincing performance, one that paved the way for Hopkin’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter thirteen years later.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (12/11/08) Netflix (2008 ***) Directed by Chris Carter, starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Mulder and Scully investigate the abduction of an FBI agent with the help of a psychic played by Billy Connolly. I’m not the first to acknowledge this movie was made about five years too late. This was probably Mulder and Scully’s swan song, since the film didn’t do well enough at the box office to warrant another theatrical film in the series. It wasn’t a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, but more than anything else it reminded me of a solid (but not great) episode of the series.

Sherlock Holmes In Washington

Sherlock Holmes In Washington (12/5/08) Netflix (1943 ***) Directed by Roy William Neill. A Murder, a matchbook and microfilm made up the key ingredients that sent Holmes and Watson flying across the Atlantic to our nation’s capital. I particularly loved how Holmes’ contemporary spy-smashing 1940’s existence was explained upfront in a screen graphic that described how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved creation was “immortal.” He certainly was popular. At 71 minutes, this and other films in the Sherlock Holmes series seem like prototypes for later 1-hour TV dramas. For me, Basil Rathbone will probably always be the quintessential Baker Street detective, though I look forward to seeing how Robert Downey Jr. will do in the role next year.