Monthly Archive for August, 2013

Born Yesterday

Born Yesterday (8/27/13) TCM (1950 ***1/2) Directed by George Cukor, based on the play by Garson Kanin, starring Judy Holliday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford. On a trip to Washington D.C., a corrupt business tycoon hires a handsome reporter to “Pygmalionize” his girlfriend into becoming less of an embarrassment. What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that? I’d seen this film many, many years ago, when I was in my twenties, but I didn’t have a real appreciation then for Holliday’s performance. Though a wonderful actress with a career that stretched for another decade, her role as Billie Dawn has become somewhat of the answer to a trivia question. Impressively, Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar, beating Anne Baxter and Bette Davis from All About Eve and Gloria Swanson from Sunset Blvd. 1950 was one helluva year to be an actress.

Thank Your Lucky Stars

Thank Your Lucky Stars (8/26/13) TCM (1943 **1/2) Directed by David Butler, starring Eddie Cantor, Humphrey Bogart, Bettle Davis, Olivia de Havilland and many other stars. Two producers attempt to put on a star-studded show to benefit the war effort, but the production is derailed by Eddie Cantor’s massive ego.  I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen a film starring Eddie Cantor, though I don’t know if that’s much of a selling point. For a classic film buff like me, it was fun seeing all the golden age era stars, and halfway through, my wife said this film was like the 1940s equivalent of Cannonball Run (1981). Despite its considerable star power, Thank Your Lucky Stars didn’t have nearly the heart, plot or general oomph of the following year’s Hollywood Canteen (1944) which I watched recently. However, the two films might make for a good double feature.

A Family Affair

A Family Affair (8/25/13) TCM (1937 ***) Directed by George B. Seitz, based on the play Skidding by Aurania Rouverol, starring Lionel Barrymore, Cecilia Parker, Julie Haydon and Mickey Rooney. Judge James K. Hardy’s unpopular decision to block a job-creating engineering project leads to him being blackmailed over his daughter’s apparent infidelity and impending divorce. This was the first entry in the long-running Andy Hardy film series, which had 16 features and one short film in all. It’s not hard from this film to see why the series was such a beloved success or why Rooney went on to become the biggest box office star of 1939 and the focus of later films in the “Hardy” franchise. The world was a very different one three-quarters of a century ago, yet Judge Hardy’s homespun wisdom and moral turpitude remain comforting. By the way, this was the only film in the series in which the Judge was played by Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life), who was replaced in the second installment by Lewis Stone.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (8/25/13) TCM (1964 ***) Directed by Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by Mark McShane, starring Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough and Judith Donner. A middle-aged couple kidnap a girl in a plot to solidify the wife’s reputation as a professional psychic. The film presents a somber character study, not only of Myra Savage and her husband Billy, but of their dysfunctional relationship as a married couple with a secret in their past. Much of the tension throughout the film came from wondering what fate will befall the kidnap victim. The moral of the film was clear, though: If your wife tells you she wants you to help her with a plan, always ask her if it involves kidnapping.

Batman: Gotham Knight

Batman: Gotham Knight (8/24/13) Netflix (2008 ***) Directed by Yasuhiro Aoki, Yuichiro Hayashi, Futoshi Higashide, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Hiroshi Morioka, Jong-Sik Nam and Shoujirou, Nishimi. The  facets of Batman’s splintered psyche are revealed in six related animated stories. The premise of this anthology was that Batman is such a mythic character,  he appears to take different forms when encountered by different people, in this case a group of kids comparing notes in an abandoned swimming pool. That premise was, of course, just an excuse for presenting several animated shorts, directed and animated by several different talented Japanese artists. While I admired the film for accomplishing what it set out to do, I can’t say I was entirely engaged by it emotionally.

Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls (8/22/13) TCM (1955 ***) Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, adapted from the musical by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on a story by Damon Runyon, starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine and Stubby Kaye. An unrepentant gamblin’ guy is tricked into making a sucker bet he can talk a Salvation Army doll into a trip to Cuba. I’ve seen this musical a handful of times, including a high school production that starred the first girl I ever dated. In spite of that fond association, Guys and Dolls has never been one of my favorite musicals. I consider it to be a second-tier musical, a pale shadow of superior mid-century offerings like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and West Side Story (1961). I honestly didn’t find any of its songs memorable other than “Luck Be a Lady” and  Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” I’ve always been annoyed by “Sue Me” and was somewhat disturbed to learn my wife’s father had taught her to sing “Take Back Your Mink” when she was four. Ultimately, this musical film’s biggest problem was that of the four leads, only one of them had a good singing voice. Can you guess which one? I’m sure there’s a great story behind how Brando agreed to play Sky Masterson, which was a definite departure from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or On the Waterfront (1954). Then again, maybe that was the point.

Black Swan

Black Swan (8/21/13) Sundance (2010 **1/2) Directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. A troubled and repressed Ballerina is selected as lead in Swan Lake by a director who is either a genius, a sadist or both. Natalie Portman won a Best Actress Oscar for this role, though her range of emotion in Black Swan ranged from looking constipated to looking like she had explosive diarrhea. In short, I was more impressed by the physical lengths (weight loss) she went to in preparing for the role than her actual performance. With its subjective “is it real or not” moments, this film fits comfortably just adjacent to superior “mindfuck” genre films like Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982). In general, I didn’t find the film or any of its characters particularly deep or complex. Nothing in the film actually surprised me, not even the psychological pyrotechnics. My final takeaway lesson was this: Don’t live at home.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (8/20/13) Netflix (2013 ***1/4) Directed by Jay Olivia, screenplay by Bob Goodman, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, featuring the voices of Peter Weller, Ariel Winter, David Selby, Michael Emerson and Mark Valley. Batman comes out of his ten-year retirement to rescue a dystopian Gotham City from itself. It took a lot of chutzpah for DC to green light an animated adaptation of one of the greatest (and revered) graphic novels of all time. And I’m one of those who holds it in high regard, having bought the original comic series in serial form when it was first released. I will understand fully if some will want to trash this 2-part direct-to-video animated film as a cheap rip-off. However, I respect the film’s creators and believe they did the best they could within obvious budgetary constraints.

The Wolverine

The Wolverine (8/19/13) DWA Screening (2013 ***1/2) Directed by James Mangold, starring Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hal Yamanouchi and Famke Janssen. An Adamantium-laced mutant travels to Japan to say goodbye to an old friend and finds himself embroiled in some serious shit. I didn’t expect much from this film, and it wasn’t high on my list of summer films I was dying to see. But when they offered it up as a Monday night screening at work I went with my wife. I enjoyed The Wolverine far more than I thought I would. It had plenty of well-executed action sequences, though one that took place on a bullet train stretched my suspension of disbelief to its limits. My wife and I also independently figured out the film’s third act reveal before the first act was over. Hugh Jackman certainly did his work preparing himself physically for the role, though some of the scenes designed to reveal various aspects of his physique were distracting. My guess is the ladies (and some of the men) in the theater didn’t mind, though. As a big fan of the first two Bryan Singer-directed X-Men movies, it was nice to see this film tied into X-Men films in the past (X-Men: The Last Stand was seven years ago) and the future. X-Men: Days of Future Past is slated for summer of 2014, and I guarantee it will be high on my list of films to see next year.

The Grifters

The Grifters (8/15/13) Sundance (1990 ***1/4) Directed by Stephen Frears, based on the novel by Jim Thompson, starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening. A young man, his girlfriend and his mother form a viscous triangle, but then that’s the kind of life you lead on the grift. It had been a long time since I first saw this film, possibly in the theater upon initial release. I’m embarrassed to admit that one of the two scenes I remembered most vividly was the one in which Annette Bening appeared nude in the full-frontal variety. I also remembered the final scene between John Cusack and Anjelica Huston, though not the events leading up to it. Interestingly, this film was produced by Martin Scorsese, and it was successful as an example of classic film noir executed in a (then) contemporary time and setting.