Monday, October 26, 2009

Read All About It

How could I have missed It Happened Tomorrow for all these years? I used to watch nothing but comedies from the 30s and 40s, until I had to branch out due to lack of material. And here's a 1944 comedy starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell, directed by Rene Claire, no less, that I had never heard of. It gives me hope.

It starts with a large group getting ready to greet a couple on their 50th anniversary. Then it flashes back to the turn of the century (you can tell because all of the men have moustaches). Dick Powell, a young newspaperman, is telling coworker Pops that he wishes he had tomorrow's paper. Pops tells him it would bring him no joy - why, he might read his own obituary!

That night, our lad meets a Linda Darnell as part of a mentalist act with her uncle, Jack Oakey (playing stage Italian), and falls in love with her. So - three uses of the time/prophecy theme: Flashback, tomorrow's paper, and stage mystic.

Later still, after everyone else has gone home, Powell meets Pops, and Pops gives him "today's" newspaper. What Powell doesn't realize is, it's after midnight, and this is the evening paper.

The rest of the movie plays out the consequences in the traditional screwball fashion: lots of running around, missed connections and misunderstandings and even a lovely duet of screaming overlapping dialog. But it's done with Rene Claire's lightness of touch - the film less frantic than classic screwball, with more room to breathe. If Bringing Up Baby gives you a headache, you might try Claire.

All in all, a charming movie. And how many more are out there that I don't know about?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Incredulous Hulk!

Staying in the Marvel Universe, we decided to give Ang Lee's Hulk a try. I want to start by asking, "Why?" Who thought up giving this movie to a director known for his sensitive family relationship dramas like Eat Drink Man Woman and Brokeback Mountain? Did some producer say, "Get me that Chinese director", thinking of John Woo? OK, it was probably his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but still.

In Lee's version (Ang, not Stan), the Hulk's story goes back to his childhood, when his atomic scientist father does genetic experiments on himself before conceiving like Bruce Banner. Then, when Bruce is a toddler in Almagordo, he is exposed to the blast of a nuclear test. Much later, as a grad student at Berkeley (yay, location shooting), he ingests nanomeds and is finally belted by gamma rays. If that won't turn you into the Hulk, nothing will.

So, what does this art-house director bring to the tale of the Jolly Green Giant? I'd say two things. First, and least important, he gives the flashback scenes in New Mexico a lovely 50s/60s sheen of nostalgia, moderne, and suburban desperation. He seems to have a real talent for this. Is this what The Ice Storm is like?

More importantly, he uses camera and editing techniques to make film inspired by comic book style. The most obvious is splitting the screen into comic style panels. But there are also quick camera movements and zooms that shift perspective as if from one panel to the next. Colors paly an interesting role too.

As for the Hulk itself, and other special effects, I'd say they are both convincing and effective. Hulk looks like Hulk, but you can see a little of Eric Bana (who plays the human side) as well.

Bana is a bit of a cypher, he comes across as blank nerd. But I understand this was an acting decision - Bana is usually known as an action hero. His girlfriend Betty Ross is played by Jennifer Connelly, who also seems to be dialing down the charisma - going for repressed?

Her dad, General Ross is Sam Elliott, as perfect as can be. Banner's dad is played by Nick Nolte, looking just like his famous mugshot. He makes a great mad scientist, trying to love his son, but much too crazy.

In fact, the two fathers might be the heart of this film: Ross, who loves his daughter and will destroy anything that he thinks threatens her, even the Hulk. Whereas Banner's dad is interested in science first, then his own success, then much further down the line, his son. And he may only love his son because he was a successful experiment.

So, great movie, good action, moving family drama. But as a Hulk movie, not so great. Sure, eventually Hulk smash. But he doesn't even appear until 40 minutes into the movie.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hugh Jackman shows off an amazing physique. I just wanted to get that off my chest.

This origin story tells of how a boy and his half-brother grow up in the Northwest Territory and discover that they can sprout claws and can recover almost instantly from any wound. One, Liev Schreiber, is mean and nasty. The other, Hugh Jackman, is Wolverine. They fight in wars (American Civil through Vietnam) and get into trouble, and finally wind up in a secret government program for other badasses with superpowers. That's nice, because we get more action scenes. We get a love interest and a retreat with a kindly old hippy couple.

Somewhere in there, the government re-builds him, replacing all of his bones and claws with unobtainium. And he loses his memory. And that's the origin of the Wolverine.

We also meet young Scott Summers, a dark brooding teenage delinquent. Which is strange, because, brooding he may be, but Cyclops has always struck me more as a geek - a sullen AV club type. We also meet Prof. Xavier, walking. I guess they both go through some changes.

Like all of the X-Men movies, this suffers from trying to do too much in too little time (making too little sense, IMHO). They could have slowed down and developed some of the side plots and minor characters. Possibly, they could have done this without slowing down with better writing. But I'm not picky. Give me some flashy action and cool superpowers, and I'm happy.

Plus, look at the pecs on Jackman. Wow.

Instant Black Cat

Movie Morlocks turned me on to The Black Cat as part of their Gladys Cooper article. Her role is small but juicy - the movie is probably better known for Bela Lugosi, Gale Sondergaard, Basil Rathbone and a young Alan Ladd. But it is really an Abbott & Costello horror spoof, without Abbott & Costello. Instead we have Hugh Herbert playing Costello, and Broderick Crawford as Orson Wells playing Bud Abbott.

A rich old lady who lives in a spooky mansion with a million cats is about to die. Crawford, who lived nearby as a boy comes to buy the house after she passes away. He brings antique dealer/imbecile Hugh Herbert. Unfortunately, the cat lady is still alive, and her relatives are all still waiting for their inheritance. They won't have to wait long, though, for the old later is swiftly poisoned. Now Crawford will have to find the murderer and woo his childhood sweetheart before Herbert destroys the house looking for (or creating) distressed antiques.

We get the usual lost will/hidden passages/creepy crypt/spooky gardeners and so on. Not as many cats as you might expect. Not a lot of jokes, not a lot of scares, but plenty of smiles and a few shivers. Hugh Herbert (not to be confused with Frank McHugh) is a bit of an acquired taste: He's the Woo-Whoo guy if that helps you identify him. But he comes in relatively small doses, so that's ok. Crawford is fun in this role, bringing a real Wellsian heft to a lightweight, comic part.

So, fun for Old Dark House spoofs, especially if you are tired of Abbott & Costello. And it is a "Watch Instantly", so you can watch anytime before Halloween.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Avanti o Populo, Porco Rosso

Miyazaki's Porco Rosso is a pleasant movie, and a beautiful cartoon. It is about a seaplane pilot in the 1920-1930s Adriatic. He is a bounty hunter in milieu of cruise ships and seaplane pirates (in Japanese, "pilot" and "pirate" are homonyms). He lives on a hidden island, drinks red wine and smokes cigarettes and loves (from afar) the beautiful owner of an island resort. Oh, yes, and he's a pig. Nose, ears, oink oink.

We get an explanation of how he became a pig in the third act, but frankly, I was being dazzled by the visuals, and it rolled off my back like ducks.

What beautiful visuals this animation has. Funky, almost steampunk seaplanes, insignificant against a background of Winslow Homer cloudscapes. Fleets of them taking off against propaganda poster smokestacks in Fascist Milan. Sky pirates all goggles and black beards, right out of Herge's Tin Tin ligne clair. I almost suspect that Miyazaki-san wanted to make a comic out of nothing but planes soaring around the sky in beautiful freedom, then added a few characters and decided to make a movie of it.

We watched the Disney dub, with Michael Keaton as the hardboiled pig, Porco Rosso. We also get Brad Garrett as no. 1 pirate boss - not well bathed, but with a fine sense of honor and rough nobility. The villain is an American who wants to kill Porco and make his name - he's voiced by Cary Elwes. I don't mind the American voices, but I hear Miyazaki-san prefers the French dub, with Jean Reno as Porco.

Even though our hero is a pig, there's a cute feminist subplot to this movie. Porco gets his plane overhauled by an aged mechanic, who turns the job over to his granddaughter, a plucky anime type girl hero. Since all of the Italian manpower is getting involved in the Fascist war effort, the crew for the overhaul is all female, and they all revel in the woman power they bring to the gig.

In conclusion, that's my second article title based on the Italian communist anthem Avanti o Populo, Bandiera Rossa. It's just a catchy tune.

Hey, Abbott and Costello!

For the record Abbott & Costello: Vol. 1: Disc 1 includes:
  • One Night in the Tropics
  • Buck Privates
  • In the Navy
  • Hold That Ghost
I will skip over the Army/Navy films - we've seen them before, and didn't watch them this time.

One Night in the Tropics is A&C's first feature film, but it isn't really an Abbott & Costello movie. It's a comedy that they have kind of been dropped into. And it's a pretty good one: It features two young top-hatted toffs, Robert Cummnings, a playboy drunk on love and about to get married and his friend, Allan Jones whose insurance policies are more like wild bets. He "insures" that Cummings will marry his fiancee for $1 million. Jones' dad, president of the insurance company, doesn't want to cover this bet, er, policy, so they lay it off with some gangsters - including nightclub owner William Frawley. And Frawley sends his boys, Abbott & Costello, to make sure the wedding happens.

Complications arise, and the whole group, including fiancee, her aunt (Mary Bolan), ex-girlfriend, etc. to a tropical isle, run by Leo Carillo. Ay-ay-ay!

Honestly, I'd watch this without Abbott & Costello. They have some good routines, like A Dollar a Day, 2 Tens for a Five, and a short Who's on First. And they do some minor support work, but aren't really integrated into the show. But I've watched much worse, and didn't mind it.

Hold That Ghost is another matter - Abbott & Costello are the stars. In short, they inherit a haunted roadhouse from a gangster and are stuck there on a dark and stormy night. Their group includes an eggheaded doctor, a slick babe and Joan Davis. Davis was a long legged, horse-faced screwy comedienne, later star of TV's I Married Joan. She has brilliant comic timing and makes a great partner for Costello.

This is the first of the A&C horror movies, but it won't be the last.

The movie has musical numbers by the Andrews Sisters and Ted Lewis wrapped around it. Ted Lewis is the "Is EVERYbody HAPpy?" guy. Now I've seen his act.

In conclusion, Joan Davis, what a gal.