THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (February, 2020)

Running behind again, obviously, but here goes (I may do one for March just to catch up. We’ll see):

February 10-Witness for the Prosecution (1957, d. Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of Billy Wilder’s fetching entertainments but mostly for one of Charles Laughton’s great fun showcases. He gets to play a barrister…who’s just had a heart attack! Double the fun for real-life spouse Elsa Lanchester as his now-domineering, now-conspiratorial home nurse. Everyone else, including Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, are turned into bystanders, but really it doesn’t matter.

February 10-Eraser (1996, d. Chuck Russell, 4th Viewing)

I wasn’t in a heavy mood so decided to re-visit this one from the nineties. By this time, Ah-nold could do these in his sleep but he gave them what he had and the ones that worked, like this one, worked pretty darn well. I had forgotten Jimmy Caan’s really despicable bad guy and just how shockingly gorgeous Vanessa Williams was and now that I remember all these things I think this one will go into semi-heavy rotation. Perfect popcorn movie and, really, from the nineties onward, what else is left?

February 13-Clear and Present Danger  (1994, d. Phillip Noyce, 3rd Viewing)

Okay, are we getting an idea that I wasn’t exactly in a heavy mood in February? This one still plays well. Harrison Ford’s lock-jawed good guys never get old with me. I wonder if he’s still the all time box office champ? I’d hate to think somebody replaced him because whoever it was or is or will be, they won’t be as good.

February 13-The Racket (1951, d. John Cromwell–Nicholas Ray assisting, 2nd Viewing)

Because I have about eight or nine box sets of films noir sitting around and, every once in a while, if I’ve been eating too much popcorn, I figure it’s time to pull one down I haven’t seen in a while: Go to my “no comfort” zone so to speak. This is a good one. Robert Ryan’s the bad guy, Robert Mitchum the good guy, Lizbeth Scott the dame. It’s all very atmospheric and corrosive and convincing. You could watch this straight through and almost convince yourself some bad guys get what’s coming to them! Not a bad feeling to have actually…while it lasts.

February 16-The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, d. Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Peter Lorre’s unmatched villainy. For emotional resonance I actually prefer Hitchcock’s 1956 remake (Hitch and I are in the minority among film buffs but there it is). This one moves along, though, and nobody could bring dimension to a terrorist the way Lorre could (hell, he was coming off giving dimension to a child molester in M, this was child’s play). His reaction to the death of his faithful female assistant, the one true believer among his cabal, is one of Hitchcock’s few truly moving scenes and the only one that is bound to make a sane person uncomfortable. The victimized family is likable in the stiff-upper-lip style of old fashioned Britain, the one that was going to always be in 1934 and ceased to exist within a generation. You can observe the depth of the fall by contrasting Leslie Banks here to the likes of Tony Blair or Boris Johnson.

February 16-Breakdown (1997, d. Jonathan Mostow, 3rd Viewing)

Okay, it’s back to popcorn by the bucket. But this one has a genuinely disturbing edge for anyone who has ever been stranded a million miles from nowhere without a cell phone (and this was made at the last minute before everybody had one). Kurt Russell’s too good an everyman (after James Garner the best Hollywood ever had) for this not to feel more plausible than it has any right to–and too good an action hero for Mostow’s impressive action sequences to go to waste. Better than I remembered and I remembered it getting under my skin.

February 17-Under Siege (1992, d. Andrew Davis, 5th Viewing)

For the scenery chewing by everybody except Steven Seagal (who thankfully doesn’t try), for Andy Davis’s always great action scenes and to watch Erika Eliniak come out of that cake.

February 17-Tight Spot (1955, d. Phil Karlson, 2nd Viewing)

For Ginger Rogers’ last great role, in which she cast back to her pre-Fred, Anytime
Annie (“the only time she said no, she didn’t understand the question”), days of the early thirties. B-movie master Phil Karlson keeps things crisp and tight. Brian Keith has a good early role and Edward G. Robinson a good late one. Nothing new really, but everything is in place, including a couple of good plot twists you might recognize without necessarily seeing them coming. Nice to remember how often Hollywood could do that once.

February 18-The Three Musketeers (1993, d. Stephen Herek, 3rd Viewing)

For a slick and satisfying update of the indestructible plot. For Rebecca DeMornay, who I’ll watch in anything. For Tim Curry’s great Cardinal Richelieu. And to once again wonder whatever happened to the delight that was Oliver Platt. You have to put up with poor Chris O’Donnell’s drip of a d’Artagnan, but it’s worth it. I was clearly on a 1990’s kick in this little stretch and I’ll pause to note that these modestly performing action films are miles better than the CGI-blockbusting head-pounders of the new century. It’s amazing how soon we forget.

February 19-The 39 Steps (1936, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 5th Viewing)

To see if I could get through it this time. For some reason this one always puts me to sleep because I have trouble following the plot. To be fair John Buchan’s novel had the same effect when I read it. I could sense I should be getting more out of it, but could never put my finger on what I was missing. Anyway, I finished it, but I nodded off at least twice. I’m not sure that should be happening in a thriller.

Great poster though! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Til next time!

DISNEY ADVENTURE (A Handy Ten)

For any number of reasons–ignorance, personal or professional jealousy, perceptions (true or false) of Walt Disney’s personal character–the Disney adventure films that linked the Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers of the thirties to the Lucas/Spielberg juggernauts of the seventies and eighties have been unjustly overlooked. Ken Annakin’s films alone represent a treasure trove of invention and style that left a large mark on the genre, and they were hardly alone.

There are plenty of others worth seeing, but these ten stand out to me:

Treasure Island (1950)
D. Byron Haskin

The Disney studio’s first full-length live action feature and it’s a doozy–first rate in every way. Robert Newton buried every portrayal of Long John Silver that preceded him and none since have escaped his shadow. Thirteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made a nearly-as-definitive Jim Hawkins and they were abetted by a first rate crew of mostly British actors.

It was a big hit and established the model for much of what followed while Walt Disney lived, including the heavy use of English, Scottish and Irish actors and directors who rarely worked in Hollywood (and even more rarely got films of this quality when they did); the plucky, teen-aged hero/heroine; and the new twist Newton provided on the comic villain, with the comedian masking the villain until it’s time for the villain to mask the comedian–who might or might not stage a last-minute comeback.

He was reaching back to Stevenson, if not Shakespeare, but there was none of the suave, unctuous charm Basil Rathbone (who would have made a great, if entirely different, Long John) had defined in an earlier era.

Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll provided another model–followed by Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk, Johnny Whitaker and others–of the Disney kid headed for a troubled life (he died at thirty-one, the most tragic of all). But that’s another story for another time.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
D. Ken Annakin

Ken Annakin’s first Disney venture and a spirited revival of the swashbuckling spirit that had died out during the war years. Richard Todd made an excellent Robin. The cast of merry men, led by James Robertson Justice as Little John, were top of the line. The script was at least as good as the famous Errol Flynn version and Annakin was an even better action director than Michael Curtiz (who was one of Hollywood’s best). The only relative weakness is Joan Rice as Maid Marian. Rice was plenty fetching but she didn’t bring the extra something Olivia de Havilland had. For that, Disney, Annakin and Todd had to wait another round…

The Sword and the Rose (1953)
D. Ken Annakin

…for Glynnis Johns, who brought a big-girl-now dimension to the tomboy heroine–and not just the Disney version. Not only is she all grown up, she’s at court. And not just any old court but Henry VIII’s just before he took to beheading wives (James Robertson Justice again, and even better than before, not least because you can see the head-lopper lurking underneath the hail-fellow-well-met exterior). Partial as I am to Annakin’s Swiss Family Robinson, which left such an indelible mark on my childhood, this is probably the best movie the Disney studio ever produced, including the animated and family classics. Johns is a major reason, but she’s hardly the whole show. Disney cast as well as anyone in Hollywood and, with the possible exception of Pollyanna, this is the deepest he ever assembled. The actors get across a great deal that a Disney script could not say in 1953…and not a little that no script could say. This might be the only film in history where a beautiful woman kills a king she doesn’t love by planting big, wet kisses on his wine cup.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
D. Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer is remembered by noir fans for low-budget wonders like The Narrow Margin. But this made him an A-lister. By now, Disney was a big enough player to get no less than James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre to star for him. They are all in fine form here. This joined Forbidden Planet and Ray Harryhausen as the last word in the period’s special effects. The giant squid scared the bejesus out of everybody my age twenty years later. Then again, so did Mason. It took me a long time to connect him to the man with the smiling eyes and suave manner who made so many heroes and villains come alive over a fifty-year career elsewhere. First impressions are indeed lasting ones.

Johnny Tremain (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not great by any means. This is the only film on this list somebody could remake and improve. It’s here, though, because it points up what a lost opportunity to filmmakers the American Revolution has been. Tepid as this often is, it’s still the best film about the Revolution after Drums Along the Mohawk and 1776. Pity that, especially since it could have been so much better. The one great feature is a fine reenactment of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, concluding in the long march back to Boston with the Minute Men picking off British regulars Indian-style. Outside that, the movie does catch at least a few of the nuances in Esther Forbes great source novel, just not enough.

Again, though, casting played a role. I can’t help looking at Hal Stalmaster’s bland, pleasant features, prominently displayed as he’s the title character, and wonder what might have been had a certain someone who was already on the lot been substituted in his place…

Old Yeller (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not that I would want Tommy Kirk to go missing from Old Yeller!

His Travis Coates doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the best-ever child performances. It should. The film could just as easily fit the “family” category. But the believability of the frontier setting and Robert Stevenson’s handling of Yeller’s intense fight scenes give it a home here. As for Kirk’s performance, put it this way: It’s a rare fifteen-year-old boy who could keep other teenage boys from missing Fess Parker (who appears only briefly). And, of course, few films–let alone action films–have ever made as many teenage boys pretend they had a cold…or wish they were a girl for five minutes so they didn’t have to pretend.

Thank Tommy Kirk for that.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
D. Ken Annakin

Annakin’s third, and least-known, feature for Disney. It’s a treasure worth seeking out. Another stellar cast, with James MacArthur and Janet Munro a consummate pair of young lovers. He plays the youngest of a family of Swiss mountain climbers, whose attempts to scale an impossible mountain have led to tragedy before and seem destined to do so again. Herbert Lom is, as usual, a standout, but the real force of nature here is the mountain itself. Annakin delivered climbing scenes that have never been matched. Certainly not for excitement and probably not for authenticity. Those alone lift an already fine film into another realm. If you catch the family’s name, and know anything about the Alps, the  name of mountain that defeats them until the last few frames will be no surprise. Just the same, I can’t promise there won’t be a lump in your throat when its full shape is finally revealed.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
D. Ken Annakin

In many ways, the jewel in the Disney crown. His most popular live feature, his greatest collaboration with Ken Annakin and, by far, his most influential. Stories of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker as an homage have never been completely confirmed or denied. All you really need to know is that Lucas and Spielberg between them stole every trick in this book–including many Annakin invented. But it’s better than that, because Annakin (unlike Spielberg and especially Lucas) insisted on putting people first (a lesson that would be lost when a split between the director and the hypersensitive Disney likely kept him from helming In Search of the Castaways, which, everywhere but the box office, was undone by several disastrous mistakes it’s hard to imagine Annakin making, even with Walt Disney pressing him). I first saw this when I was eight. I’ve never watched it since without feeling a thrill that transcends nostalgia.

The Moon-Spinners (1964)
D. James Neilsen

Often described as Hitchcock-lite. But Hitchcock was often at his best in that mode and he wasn’t making this kind of movie anymore (he didn’t do anything “lite” between 1959’s North By Northwest and 1976’s Family Plot) and The Moon-Spinners fills in nicely. It’s a heist flick, which is the best kind of adventure to have. And Hayley Mills–who had become the ultimate Disney tomboy–closes down the concept in style. Eli Wallach makes a lovely bookend for Robert Newton. And silent star Pola Negri came out of retirement to ask Mills if anything like this has ever happened to her before.

“No,” Hayley says. “This is the very first time.”

“I have a strange feeling it won’t be the last.”

It was,though, really.

Too bad for us.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)
D. Michael O’Herlihy

The last adventure film overseen by Disney himself (there would be one more family picture, Follow Me Boys!, before his sudden death in December of 1966). By now, the sudden climate change of the mid-sixties had rendered this sort of film an anachronism. For someone born as far from his time as I was, it’s probably fitting that the first film I remember seeing in a theater was the story of a young prince fighting for his throne in a time and place far, far away. Imagine my delight when, after years of searching in the age of video, I finally got a chance to see it again some thirty years later, and found it well up to snuff. Barely released on VHS or DVD (it’s going for thirty-two bucks used on Amazon as I type–I got my copy some years back by joining Disney’s video club), I’ve managed to see it many times since.

You don’t need nostalgic memories of the Vanguard Theater in downtown Cocoa, Florida to feel this one: It’s got a burning lead by Peter McEnery that would nave made a nice model for a new kind of swashbuckling hero if there had been any justice; the usual fine cast and stirring battle scenes; a surprising feel for Irish history even if no less (though no more) of the usual liberties are taken; and, not least, a dramatic castle siege that manages, in five minutes, to convey the degree to which the English and Irish have hated each other for centuries better than a thousand speeches or either island’s fleet of fine writers.

If it had to end, Donegal castle was a great place for it.

My six-year-old self couldn’t have asked for better.

And neither could the self that approaches sixty.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (September, 2018)

Sept. 16-The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola, Fifth Viewing)

Because it had been a while and, recognizing it’s a cinematic masterpiece, I still want to keep trying. The glamorization of sociopaths is not something I take lightly, and whether that was anyone’s intention or not, that’s been the movie’s chief legacy. Why I’ll always come back to it at least once in a while: To remind myself that Al Pacino, in his breakout role, was a model of restraint and nuance. There’s no way to imagine anyone else in the part while you’re watching it–and no way to reconcile what he was with what he has become. And for Brando’s reckless and glorious decision to play the Godfather as a series of fluid masks, part clown, part Borgia, which never let you in on whether he thinks this role is a Serious Acting Job, a Gently Mocking Comic Performance, or a Complete Crock.

Or maybe all three.

Sept. 16-The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola, Fifth Viewing)

Well, I already watched the other one. And my internet was out. Pacino’s still great. Brando is sorely missed (as is James Caan). DeNiro is good enough, no better. It still gets by, and pretty easily. It’s extremely well made. It doesn’t help that its vision of American corruption–doubling down on the first movie and evidently illuminating in its own time (a lot of people thought it was better than the first)–has long since been rendered naive by real world events.

Sept. 17-Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937, Norman Foster, Third Viewing)

For Peter Lorre, and the charms of Old Hollywood. What else is there? What else does there need to be? Not much, thankfully.

Sept. 19-Office Space (1999, Mike Judge, Fifth Viewing)

For the production values….Just kidding. Really because we’ve all been there. I’ve worked for the same company since 1986 and, except for my first year and one or two years in the early nineties, I’ve basically worked unsupervised. The last ten years I’ve worked at home. Except for the pay, I’ve had a pretty good gig. Still, I relate to some part of this. Everybody relates to some part of this. Office life and the rending and tearing of the American Dream. Jennifer “This is Me, Expressing Myself,” Aniston expressing herself, comic genius from Gary Cole, Diedrich Bader and Stephen Root (pictured above), and I like how no one really escapes into anything except the next round of being themselves.

Sept. 20-That Darn Cat! (1965, Robert Stevenson, Umpteenth Viewing)

 For Ms. Mills, of course, and because it’s an indestructible fantasy–an America where cats and plucky tomboys solve kidnappings and, if they do have to call on the FBI, it’s represented by Dean Jones, not J. Edgar Hoover or the clownfish who run the place now. And laugh about those silly Disney comedies all you want, but try putting a cast together to equal not just those two, but  Dorothy Provine, Wiliam Demarest, Elsa Lancaster, Ed Wynn, Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin these days. When you do, just be sure to keep them. I’ll take this.

Sept. 20-The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

Sue me, I was still in a Hayley mood (not to mention a Hayley-in-blue-jeans-and-a-sailor-cap mood, which is sort of its own thing). Plus, I like to fume at James MacArthur once in a while by reminding myself he’s the only male of the entire species who ever walked out of a last frame with her and Janet Munro. Who doesn’t want to sit around the house on a rainy day muttering Lucky bastard. I’m glad you’re dead!?

Plus it’s one of maybe twenty movies that still make me laugh out loud. I’ve never pretended to know why.

Sept. 20-The Bad News Bears (1976, Michael Ritchie, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the best movie that is ever going to be made about the seventies and the closest I’ll ever see to an autobiography on film. I wasn’t any one player–but I was more than a little piece of some of them (including the Timmy Lupus we all suspect we are when we’re ten and the Kelly Leak we all want to be when we’re twelve)–and I knew the rest. I like that Michael Ritchie and Walter Matthau (in his finest performance) didn’t miss what was happening to the culture at the neighborhood level–and what was being done to those of us who were too young to know–without it really being anyone’s fault because it was everyone’s fault.

And, for all that, there’s still no movie any funnier.

Sept. 21-The Terminator (1984, James Cameron, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the greatest pulp movie ever made and I’m always glad when I haven’t seen it in a while (like, I don’t know, six months) and can feel like I’m about to get run over by a truck again.

The entire American movie industry–not to mention James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger–have spent the last three-and-a-half decades trying (and failing) to catch up. Absent any meaningful national narrative (like those that fueled everything from westerns to war movies to biblical epics to melodramas in previous decades), pulp is all we have. Since there’s little we can do about that, it’s lucky for us we at least have a truly apocalyptic vision of ourselves, just as it was all blowing apart. If you watch it often enough, you might start to notice how impossible Linda Hamilton’s transformation from the girl next door to scared rabbit to super-heroine actually is–and how natural she makes it look. Whether you notice or not, it once inspired David Thomson to call her character “a very tough young hoodlum” when what he meant was, she’s a waitress.

As Sarah Connor might say, it never hurts to be reminded what the crit-illuminati really think of you.

Sept. 23-Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the second best western of the nineteen-thirties (after Stagecoach). I usually don’t exactly get Marlene Dietrich, but she’s fabulous here. I almost always get James Stewart and he’s fabulous, too. I also like to be reminded that the second greatest western of the thirties was a spoof and that it was greater than even the greatest spoofs that came later because it was also a really fine straight western. That said, there’s no scene I wait for more eagerly than the catfight between Dietrich and Una Merkel, which puts all other screen catfights to shame. (The only weakness is a stolid romantic subplot–but even John Ford sometimes had trouble with those.)

Sept. 23-Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because I like it’s odd rhythm, which is neither modern nor old-fashioned but, rather like the Duke Ellington score that pulses underneath, its own thing. Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara play a couple who hadn’t been seen in American film before and really haven’t been seen again. It’s not that people haven’t tried, it’s just that, as a pair, they represent something that can only have real juice the first time it happens–and I don’t even know whether I mean the characters or the performances, or that it matters.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, they’re going to run down the road until somebody stops them. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, they’re never going to be easy targets or sitting ducks. You can’t predict what will happen to them, no matter how many times you watch. All the other fine performances (James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott–none of them ever better) are just there for a framework, along with Preminger’s stellar direction and a dead-on script pruned from Robert Traver’s (a nom-de-plume for real life attorney John D. Voelker), overlong bestseller.

Everybody else is stuck in the fifties.

Lee and Ben are ready for the sixties.

Ready in a way the squares who sit around in their little towns preserving civilization–setting up law practices, defending murderers–never can be.

….Til next time.