Gunga Din (1939)

William Goldman has named Gunga Din (1939), multitudinously and vociferously, as the greatest movie ever made, and his favorite, of course. He was eight years old when the movie came out. Obviously it made a big impression on him, one that has not faded with time.

The movie is old-fashioned cowboy-and-indians in spirit, with Bengal Lancer cowboys and Indian indians. Working as I do with many from the subcontinent, it was hard to ignore the colonial spirit of the thing. I queried some Indians about the movie – five thirty-somethings first. None had heard of Gunga Din, the poem or the movie, or Rudyard Kipling either. One of them knew the Jungle Books, perhaps because she’s a mother with young children. An older Indian friend didn’t know the movie but took a dim view of Western adventure movies set in India in general. I also asked about hats in India, as there was many a turban in evidence in the movie and it occurred to me  that I’d never seen a non-Western, Indian hat. My coworkers and friends reported that there is no Indian tradition of hats, but that the turbans in their many forms, a feature of northern India, could sometimes be doffed and undoffed like hats. A Sikh friend wrapped one out of lemon-yellow cloth for my daughter years ago, on Halloween. It’s still sitting around somewhere. Southern India not only has no tradition of hats, but also has no tradition of turbans. Bare heads all the way.

So then I asked a random selection of non-Indian coworkers about Gunga Din. The first fellow I chose recalled that Gunga was a water-carrier. Good Kipling knowledge! But the next few uniformly had no clue, had never heard of Kipling.  😦  A couple guessed that Gunga Din was a musical group. I checked LinkedIn for possible Gunga contacts. There are a few, all last-named Gunga. Grupo Malungos de Capoeira could be useful in combating Thuggee, the bad guys in the moive. Ganga is a river, the Ganges, the river goddess who flows from the head of Lord Rama, but that’s not an alternate Gunga.

Anyway, the first hurdle that must be mastered on the way to enjoyment of Gunga Din, for some viewers – those of us who spend part of the time in a movie just eyeballing the set locations – is the Californianess of the Hindu Kush in the film. Same problem as with Sherwood Forest’s Chico-like aspect in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Gunga Din was filmed near Lone Pine, California. The backsides of the Sierras filled in for the Himalayas. These days in California, those thousands of extras in the movie could be actual Indians from India. (The movie was RKO’s most expensive to that date, but it made the money back, and plenty more. Faulkner took a first crack at the screenplay.)

Pandro Berman, the production manager, claimed that many an Indian told him that the locations look just like the Hindu Kush, do maybe just because I thought they looked like California didn’t mean that they didn’t look like India as well.

After locations, and Cary Grant’s coming-and-going English accent, it’s all good fun. The kind of fun where the background music is sort of jolly and zippy as the three Lancer heroes kill Thuggees in droves. These days, the music would be more ironic as the dead pile up. We’ve lost some of the innocence of 1939, what with the degradation of the planet, extinction of countless species, deterioration of retirement accounts and pensions, and use of steroids. Fortunately, high body counts in the movies can still be fun. And WW II did shortly provide Hollywood with priceless Nazi drama gold.

Gunga Din also features the old-fashioned type of socking and punching: quick, short blows that put down the opponent quickly. I watched Johnnie To’s Election (2005) the other night and brother ben, guys had to hack guys, and kick them, and whack them with large rocks on and on to finally force quiessence upon them. Added 30 minutes to the film.

I listened to a Kipling biography on tape some time in the past. One thing I remember from it: in a long life, there is plenty of time to do a lot of things and go to a lot of places. Kipling wrote the poem Gunga Din, along with the Jungle Books, Captains Courageous, and various other pieces, while living in Vermont, for example. Reading the poem again, it’s a heckofa poem. The man really got it right with that one. In the movie, they magically transport him to the scene of Gunga Din’s sacrifice and have him write the poem right there on the spot. Then they read it at the grave site. Or at least the final line. Like Gunga, the leader of the other side sacrifices his life for the Indian nationalist cause, jumping into a pit of cobras sort of like Borgnine with the wolves  in The Vikings (1958) (RIP, Tony Curtis, who played the young Viking Eric; Janet Leigh was Morgana; Jamie Lee was born that same year.). Gunga (Sam Jaffe) gets the graveside plaudits; the Indian nationalist (Eduardo Ciannelli) is execrated.

Finally, there is a punch-bowl-at-a-party scene, in which Grant adds the potent contents of a bottle (elephant tranquilizer?) to a bowl of punch. The Key Club (junior Kiwanis)  did the same thing in high school at a Women’s League luncheon, though we used something more conventional than liquid animal trank. Subsequently, as we bused the ladies’ tables, we were disappointed to observe that they seemed to be enjoying their drinks an awful lot without any concomitant falling down dead drunk, or anything more than heightened color in their cheeks. In retrospect, I think that we were doing them all a favor as they faced a spate of boring presentations. Once started, they returned with increasing frequency to the bowl to top off their cups. This was back before doing a couple of lines in the powder room had been accepted by the moms as a way to take the edge off.

Just Wright (2010)

Just Wright (2010) – How did Queen Latifah get that scar? Is it common knowledge?… She’s 40+ playing a realistic 35. Makeup! She’s another entry on the long list of women working after 40 (along with Pam Grier in the movie), once a rarity, now a commonplace… Common, btw, plays an NBA all-star. The cameraman in several shots makes him look shorter than Queen herself. With Rajon, Dwight, Dwayne, and Jalen all in the frame with him, it’s important that Common not look too small. Plus, in the romance scenes, it’s best not to have Queen’s head look 50% larger than his. And how come at 38, a top NBA player and future Hall-of-Famer, he’s still single, but then falls hard for a transparent gold-digger like the Paula Patton character? And… and… wait a minute… “Common”? Who the heck is “Common”? My God, life is passing me by. I wouldn’t know Common if he snuck up and bit me on the ass. The man had a feud with Ice Cube in the ’90s. How could I not know that? Somebody go update the man’s Wiki page. I think that it stops three or four years ago.

Well, I wanted rom com and I got rom com, because Latifah and Common have chemistry and whatever that means, whatever that is, it’s all you need to make the long wait for the final clinch worthwhile… I liked the movie. It’s got a great example of the it’ll-be-a-while-before-we-smooch-but-now-our-lips-need-to-get-accidentally-close-to-each-other’s-and-we-both-need-to-look-a-little-shocked-with-a-hey-i-think-i’m-in-love-expression-stealing-over-our-faces. In the final clinch, the skinny muscular dude has  got an armful.

Movie notes:

I need to watch Chris Rock’s Good Hair (200), wherein Rock “explores the wonders of African-American hairstyles.” Latifah, Patton, and Grier don’t have a single curl among them.

Nice touch: the 40-year-old’s parents counseling her about meeting the  right man.

Class: the piano scenes feature a Steinway.

Checking the producers: Queen’s got her own money in it.

Common’s mother is described as “a pill.” I’m glad to see that the expression is still used.

The meet cute happens at a gas station where Queen and Common are pumping their own gas; you can’t pump your own gas in New Jersey.

I checked out that scar. Happened when Queen was three, playing with her brother. She tripped over a phone cord and bonked her head.

Dial 1119 (1952); The Phenix City Story (1955)

Michael Troutman at I Shoot the Pictures is watching all the movies on the 1000 Greatest Movies list. He rates those that he’s seen and I searched amongst the ones he has listed in his Highly Recommended category for something to watch. I chose Dial 9111 (1952) and ordered it from Netflix. It comes on a double-feature disk with The Phenix City Story (1955).

Troutman’s take on Dial 1119.

First and foremost: any connection between 1119 and the current emergency number 911? Not that I know of.

Second and nextmost: I’m always surprised when I find a good Hollywood movie that I haven’t heard of before, even though I should be used to that by now. There are plenty of good movies that I haven’t seen, of course, but not so many that I’ve never even heard of. I didn’t recognize any of the actors in Dial 1119, either, except for William Conrad, and he doesn’t stick around in the movie for long.

Thirdlymost: Checking out some of the other work by the actors in this movie, I’m reminded of all the great drama on TV in the 50s. Lux Video Theater, Front Row Center, Screen Directors Playhouse, Studio One in Hollywood, Playhouse 90, G. E. True Theater, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Armstrong Circle Theater, and many more. Dial 9111 plays like a presentation on one of these shows; it runs 75 minutes, uses a couple of sets and a stable of contract players, gives us some drama, a couple of closeups, gunplay, an ice-cream truck pulling up to the crowd at a hostage situation, lots of 50s hats, one of those movie air ducts that a man can crawl through, and a satisfying climax (this being the 50s, there is not much doubt about what the denouement will be). Troutman mentions the lack of a score in the movie; another reason that it might have seemed like a 50s TV drama to me. This was back when a phone number in the big city required only 4 digits; where I lived, you picked up the phone and told the operator the number you wanted. I had several dvds competing for my attention, but this one kept me to itself all the way through.

Kudos to Troutman and the others who are watching the movies on these humongous lists of notable films, instead of or in addition to Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (2009). I watched the IMDB Top 250 and it almost killed me. In fact, I quit with 9 left, all partially viewed; I couldn’t take it anymore. The good news is that by preying on Troutman’s list, I can now check off at least one of the great-film listees. And maybe by now, the 9 that I didn’t finish have dropped off the list, replaced by movies that I’ve seen. I see that Inception (2010) is presently ranked 4th-best movie of all time.

Anyway, so much for Dial 1119, the fun movie. The Phenix City Story, also on the disk, I was familiar with but had never watched. I grew up in the South and when I was ten or eleven I began hearing about Phenix City. Nothing good. It’s across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Benning, and back before it was cleaned up, it enjoyed at least 50 years of profitable vice in all its usual forms. But another 50 years, and in 2007 it was voted “most affordable suburb.” It’s also not far from Auburn University, which is a lot bigger now than it was then and which beat Clemson on the gridiron today as I write this; the cheerleaders for the game were dressed so as to make the old Phenix City proud.

When I moved to Phoenix for high school, “Phenix” just seemed plain weird.

The difference between Dial 9111 and The Phenix City Story is that in Dial 9111, Marshall Thompson plays an in-dramas-only mental case holding as hostage a collection of in-dramas-only bar customers, occasionally plugging one of them for our entertainment, whereas in The Phenix City Story, actors demonstrate the courage required of community members when they’re up against a corrupt city government and a criminal culture that treats murder like a public utility, for indiscriminate use against men, women, and children.

For example, the chief of police, speaking casually to a patrolman: “Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on Sam Patterson’s front lawn. Go out there and have a look.”

The Production Code wanted the movie’s child murders and some of its other violence removed, but everything stayed in, probably because on one level, the film is a documentary. Don’t be put off by the twelve-minute intro, in which a real-life reporter interviews some of the real-life participants in the events depicted in the film; it’s the real thing, not B-movie posing.

The story centers on the murder of the Democratic nominee for State Attorney General, Albert Patterson, a long-time Phenix City lawyer. The movie was shot on location in Phenix City while the trial of his murderers was going on. John McIntire, who plays Patterson in the movie, wore the suit that Patterson was killed in, and the film was shot on 14th Street, the center of the sin part of “Sin City,” despite threats from the mobsters in charge there.

Movie notes:

Edward Andrews is the baddest of the bad guys and the most familiar face to me in the movie. He went on to play innumerable  parental and business guys in innumerable family movies, Disney and otherwise. He was Molly Ringwald’s grandpa in Sixteen Candles (1984). Lucky for him this film didn’t typecast him permanently as an evildoer.

The movie was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who also wrote Out of the Past (1947) and  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both also about small towns with problems. 

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) (Criterion)

SPOILERS

My neighborhood used to be crisscrossed with open ditches that handled runoff during storms. When the rain was heavy, the ditches became dangerous, running fast and often overflowing into the streets. During the dry season, an occasional car would back into a ditch or run off the road into one. Then one day, fliers were posted and distributed throughout the neighborhood, announcing that the County would fill the ditches and install storm drains. Shortly thereafter, a couple of earnest souls appeared at my door, representing a neighborhood association that I didn’t know existed. The two explained to me in great detail why the drain project was a terrible idea. I don’t remember the specifics of their argument, but the couple was very convincing. Probably something to do with taxes and government and how the ditches added character to the area, how crocodiles infest drainpipes, so forth. I was presented with an anti-drain petition, which I declined to sign. The ditches were filled in, the storm drains were installed, the overflow flooding and dogs and babies swept away and cars backing over the edge ceased, and I never heard from the minions of the neighborhood association again.

Up until 1940 in the U.S., if you got old without a pension or children to support you, you were screwed. Because of the Democratic landslide in 1932, FDR was able to get a social security bill passed in 1935, over Republican cries of pain, hysterical screams, dire threats, and predictions of crocodiles in the drain pipes of Washington. Socialism! End of the U.S. as we now know it! Once again, poor prospects for the Washington Senators (finished 6th in the American League in 1935, 67-86). Etc. The new program began phasing in in 1937, but no payments were made to seniors until 1940. Before then, you were on your own. Sort of like Logan’s Run (1976), only you weren’t forced to retire at 30.

Leo McCarey successfully directed Laurel and Hardy, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd in hit comedies. He was a big man at RKO. In 1937, McCarey’s father died and McCarey set out to make a movie to honor him. He chose as his subject the economic plight of the elderly in depressed times in this great nation of ours – specifically, how five grown children are to deal with their destitute mom and dad. His movie, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), is not a comedy. Studio execs, up to and including Adolf Zukor, visited Mcarey’s set and pleaded for a star or two in the cast, and especially for a happy, or happier, ending. McCarey would not provide either and MWFT tanked at the box office. Folks had enough to worry about without watching this downer. Even Umberto D. (1952) had an upbeat ending, in the sense that ***spoiler*** Umberto’s dog Napoleone didn’t get squished by the train at the end. Paramount did not renew McCarey’s contract; in effect, he was fired.

The critics loved this movie. Directors like Capra, Welles, Lubitsch, and Renoir praised it. McCarey received a warm letter from George Bernard Shaw. At the time, Harry Cohn was feuding with Frank Capra and asked McCarey to do a movie for Colombia. McCarey asked for a fortune and Cohn laughed at him, but the two spent some time together and McCarey ended up making the classic screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937), and winning an Oscar for it; he thanked the academy for the Oscar but famously noted that they gave it to him for the wrong movie. He went on in the 40s to make Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945).  After first run, The Bells of Saint Mary’s was  RKO’s top grosser up to that date and Going My Way was the same for Paramount. McCarey had the top reported income in the nation in 1944. His name appeared above his movies, an honor accorded to few directors. MWFT remained his favorite film. So let that be a lesson to you. Do the right thing!

The movie concerns a couple, married for 50 years, who lose their house to the bank. They have five grown children who immediately offer to help, within their ability to do so, but it’s clear to us from the start that trouble is coming. In the case of my own family, my three sisters and I were faced with, and are still faced with, a similar challenge: how to help mother, who is no longer able to live independently even with assistance? The obvious solution: have her take a turn in each of our homes. This worked for a while and then stopped working. We’re talking about years and years here; my mom is 97. (The movie is based on a book, “The Years Are So Long.” Time flies when you’re having fun, but not when you’re arguing with your mother.) The problems that we encountered were not events of a moment. They stretched out over time. In the movie, the action is condensed into specific incidents in dramatic scenes.  These can play a little hokey, but anybody with a headstrong but incapacitated parent in the house will recognize what McCarey is getting at – the duty, the problems, and especially the guilt, no matter what you do. In the movie, the presenting issues are financial, in our case health-related – but the moral dilemma is the same and the final cost to the kids is in the time spent by all concerned. McCarey used improvisation to avoid contrivance, to keep the characterizations balanced. His mastery in this movie was to demonstrate the pain-in-the-neckedness of the parental behavior and then to turn on a dime and nail you with mom and pop’s humanity, jerking sudden tears out of nowhere.

In the film’s third act, the senior couple spends an afternoon and evening on foot in NYC, prior to their forced separation. Echoes of Sunrise (1927). The wife’s apparent equanimity at the prospect of separation from her husband put me in mind of those cultures that consign their elders to an ice floe when their teeth are too worn down to tear and chew blubber anymore, or of the tribes that leave the oldsters behind to await the wolves when the travois are packed up and dragged away. A generation of boomers can descry senility on the far horizon now, with few pensions in prospect for them. Be interesting to see how they make out, even if they’re spared the privatization of their social-security benefits. Thoughts like these were juxtaposed in my mind with the fact that in the movie, everyone whom the couple encounters during their city walkabout behaves in a pleasant, kind, thoughtful, respectful way toward them. I suppose I expected the two to be ignored, brushed past, invisible. Have them treated in so loving a way was a dramatic stroke of great power by McCarey.

If you happen to be watching Harry Brown (2009) at the same time as MWFT, you might ask yourself why the senior couple, in such extremis, doesn’t just acquire a brace of Sig 9s and start shooting. The answer: in 1937 the Sig 9 hadn’t been invented yet.

MWFT is said to be one of the greatest of unknown movies. Its full title would properly be “Make Way for Tomorrow by Dying When You Get Old, Instead of Lingering, to the Inconvenience (not to say Annoyance) of All.” This whole situation can be avoided in future if you all just remember not to get old. Don’t let it sneak up on you, because it ain’t pretty! McCarey handles the problem by hiring Beulah Bondi to play the old lady. Beulah was 49 at the time (nice makeup job).

You’ll Find Out (1940); Zombies on Broadway (1945)

Boy, the old comedies really rub your nose in the racial divide.

Apart from that, for a good time and a primer on radio taste in the ’40s, I recommend You’ll Find Out (1940), available from NetFlix as part of a double feature that includes Zombies on Broadway (1945). Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre get top billing these days, but Helen Parrish, Dennis O’Keefe, and the Kay Kyser band are the actual leads in YFO. Oh, and Ish Kabibble (Merwyn Bogue). I can’t remember ever seeing Ish in a movie before, but I do remember him on the radio. He passed away in ’94 at the age of 86, in Joshua Tree, California, of all places. Not much happens in Joshua Tree, I can tell you, but if I had known that he met his Maker there, I would have sought out the plaque and combed my hair into bangs in memoriam.

One thing I like about a lot of  ’40s movies, including this one, is the closeups. Let’s have more closeups! Or maybe closeups are just better in black and white… After typing that, I found myself watching an episode of Lost. There were closeups. Sweaty ones. But none so lovingly, lingeringly done as those in YFO.

Mouth and teeth notes from YFO:

– Karloff is this movie could be Jeremy Irons. Sounds like him, mouth looks like the Irons’ mouth.

– Lorre is sporting false teeth in this one. Sort of Bogart teeth. Why??

– More teeth: Ginny Simms’ choppers – what a set! As she croons, “I’d know you anywhere… from my dreams” the screen is full of teeth.

You may wonder what you’ll find out, exactly, in You’ll Find Out, or what the protagonists find out. I won’t spoil it for you. In fact, I can’t.

I’m old enough to remember going to movies like YFO and ZOB in the ’40s. We’d walk downtown (a few blocks), choose between the Onslow and the State, and catch some advertisements, previews, a newsreel, a cartoon, and a double feature. Our parents might pick up a free bowl or plate on Wednesdays as well. The only time that I remember going to a movie that wasn’t a double feature was a revival of Gone With the Wind.

This was years before we had a TV and we had a full roster of favorite appointment radio shows. I was thinking about that as I watched YFO, because it features Kay Kyser’s band (and Kay himself) and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge, which was popular on NBC.

Zombies on Broadway features Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello. Brown and Carney are no Abbott and Costello, but they made me smile in this one. They’re more like two lesser Costellos. Lame dialog but some good gags. Their zombie work might have inspired the later Abbott and Costello monster movies. This one had lots of big 40s hats and Anne Jeffreys at 22 looking 32; a lot of 30-somethings in the 40s played teenagers or 20-somethings; here’s a case of the opposite.

Sheldon Leonard also appears in ZOB. For some reason, I’ve always loved Sheldon Leonard.

Infestation (2009)

Writer/director Kyle Rankin describes Infestation (2009) as a zombie movie using bugs. If you take your lesser zombie and/or bug movies seriously, note that this review contains SPOILERS. For example, the following sentences might spoil your sense of location in the movie: Rankin wanted to set the movie in Anywhere, U.S.A. However, at one point he was required to specify which state the license plates in the movie should represent. He chose Colorado because the office park they were using for the shoot reminded him of Colorado Springs. However, the movie was shot, start to finish, in Sofia, Bulgaria. If you know this going in, perhaps you will find yourself thinking, hmm, Americans in Bulgaria – hope they’re enjoying the foreign experience. Or your eye might stray from the foreground to the landscape, as your inner tourist takes control during some moment of overlong exposition. Someone told Rankin in advance that there would be bad food but beautiful women, which seemed like an ok tradeoff to him (he hooked up with a woman but also focused on the local gustatory delicacies, such as they were). He then checked Wikipedia to ascertain where Sofia, and in fact, Bulgaria, was. I myself know two Bulgarian women, offhand. One beautiful, the other a good mother.

Making movies in Bulgaria to save money may be tapering off, but I haven’t checked to confirm. Bulgaria joined the European Union at the start of 2007, but the Lev won’t be replaced by the Euro sooner than 2013, so the favorable Lev/Dollar exchange rate remains. As someone observed, however, your movie-making in Bulgaria should feature cheap, because everything in the country is cheap. I heard somewhere that many production teams are moving to South Africa now, another inexpensive place to film.

I know these things about Bulgaria and Rankin in Bulgaria because I elected to watch Infestation with his commentary turned on (which also means, with the dialog 99% inaudible). This is the first time, if my memory serves, that I’ve watched a movie with the commentary track turned on first, from the beginning. It’s a strange experience. You see but don’t hear the movie. Conflict between bug and human is manifest; the more important conflict between human and human is absent. Also, this is a horror comedy, with most of the humor in the dialog (assuming that it’s there at all). Thus, THIS IS NOT A REVIEW UNLESS I GO BACK AND LISTEN TO INFESTATION. Will I do that? Don’t know yet. First must finish watching the commentary. Rankin recorded it in 2008, so it’s not exactly au courant (the movie was shot summer of 2007 and went on the festival road). I’ve got to take this review thing a little seriously here, because more than one list maker has included Infestation as one of their top 10 horror films of 2009.

One bit of plot explanation, if you plan to watch the movie. The bugs wrap up the humans and then inject something into their jugulars. (How the bugs see through the cocoon to do that accurately, I don’t know.) But in the hero’s case, the bug is distracted at the crucial moment and injects the whatever through the hero’s cheek into his mouth instead of into the vein. Therefore the hero can bust out of the cocoon and run around busting others out. How come they can wake up too, if they’ve been jugulared? Wait… You can’t think about stuff like that in a  B- or C-level bug movie. Listening to the commentary, you realize how much of what you’re watching depends upon how the film was cut, how much time the crew had while shooting any given scene, the impact that a moose head falling off the wall accidentally can have, so forth. The movie is loaded with ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement or Additional Dialogue Recording, also known as dubbing or looping).

Movie notes:

– If you’re going to put boobs… nah, I’m not going to go there. Except to say that the one terrible mistake, for me, in the masterpiece that is Mulholland Drive (2001), is the bad boob job. Please don’t take me out of the movie just because Dr. Plastic Hollywood over there in Woodland Hills couldn’t do his job right.

– Linda Park is not Grace Park.

– Small bugs are scary, as in Splinter (2008). Big bugs are goofy.

– Rankin was the casting director for Reindeer Games. Since then, he has made eight movies (long and short), this one in association with Icon, which is Mel Gibson’s company. Do what you want with the bugs, but don’t bug Mel!

– It took them 7 weeks to build the bug nest. They blew up a miniature of it in Topanga, behind Rankin’s house.

– Screenplay called for a box of animal cookies on the shelf. The hero opens the cupboard and there they are, provided by the Bulgarian crew, biscuits for a cat.

Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea, listening to the commentary first. But no, it was fun.

I did watch the movie, finally. It was pretty good. Lively.  The bugs were ok, excepting the usual amount of pure nonsense so often present in these movies. Sure, it was Bulgaria, but a bug’s a bug. There were some excellent action effects. Rankin writes pretty good – writes better comic dialog than I ever could. Chris Marquette is a funny guy. I smiled a lot. Most importantly, I cared about the characters.

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

You know how directors film Tom Cruise and Pacino and other short guys so that they seem of normal height? Jimmy Stewart was 6′ 3″ and Jean Arthur was 5′ 3″ and in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Stewart looks like he could dribble Arthur down the court if he wanted to. Did Capra shoot them that way, the tall and the short, on purpose, or  had he not learned how to do the framing trick that would make them seem more equal? Fast forward to something like The Stratton Story (1949) and I’ll bet you don’t see Stewart looming over June Allyson, who was 3″ shorter than Arthur. Something to look into.

YCTIwY is based on the Kaufman and Hart Pulitzer-winning play and it’s Capra at his life-and-America-are-grand best, and offhand, I can’t think of a sadder and more dispiriting movie to sit watching, if while listening to Barrymore’s speech about “isms” or his disinclination to pay any taxes since they’ll only be spent on battleships,  you happen at the same time to be pondering the fact that the movie was made in 1938. Like attending a wedding one day before the groom’s regiment leaves for the front.

But assuming that you’re not brooding about the past in that way while you watch, YCTIwY carries you along like the Rapids Ride at the Manhattan Water Park. Watching it at the same time as She’s Out of My League (2010), I realized how tightly it’s made. The two movies: one, knitting, the other, crochet. In the time that it takes Jay Baruchel and Alice Eve to consume their dinner outdoors in downtown Pittsburgh, YCTIwY has run down the rails from a xylophone number to a gunpowder accident, with Arthur’s visit to Stewart’s parents thrown in.

(Parenthetically, as indicated by the parentheses, there is a scene at the beginning of SOoML in which Alice Eve walks through the Pittsburgh airport, stopping all male traffic as she strides along in her red high heels, preceded by her cleavage and posterierceded by her flowing blond hair. We’re required to suspend our disbelief just a tiny bit because, although she is looking mighty fine in the scene, and is backed by a supportive musical soundtrack, maybe she’s not… quite… that fine. But we get the point. The thing is, I was reminded of my first job after college, wherein I sat at a desk in a very large room filled exclusively with men of all ages dressed in short-sleeve white shirts and dark ties. Every afternoon at two, the boss’ daughter pushed a mail cart through the room. We knew that she was coming because there was another room just like ours through the doorway to the south and we could hear the silence fall there at one fifty-five. This young innocent with her cart and Virgin-Mary blank stare and exaggerated secondary characteristics, dressed like a Burger-King hooker, was the prototype, the ur-babe, the apotheosis of show-stoppers. No one, including yours truly, could get enough of her. Then when she had passed on to the next room to the north and the cone of silence moved out with her, we all  slumped back in our chairs in unison, shaking our heads, rolling up our fingers in our ties, spent.)

Watching Barrymore also brought me down somewhat for another reason, as I was reminded of his brother’s downward spiral into terminal alcoholism, whereas I was drinking Pepsodent-flavored Mogen David out of the kids’ Donald Duck bathroom cup because there was nothing else in the house but the Everclear we use to cook pork-chops flambe.

But whatever else, the movie did jerk some tears, happy tears, in the end.

Movie notes:

– The best thing that ever happened to Capra was hooking up with Stewart.

– Back in ’38,”giving 110%” was already in the dialog.

– So was “arrested for selling dope.”

– I wonder if the saying-the-blessing-at-the-dinner-table scenes carried a different resonance in ’38 than they do today?

– Kaufman and Hart have the wise old Barrymore in the end sell his house, causing the whole neighborhood to be dispossessed without him saying boo about it. Odd? Or does all come right so quickly after that that the playwrights considered themselves off the hook?

– The best part of the movie for me was Edward Arnold demonstrating his powerful onscreen presence whilst throwing his weight around.

Creature of Darkness (2009)

Why did I bring home this particular movie, of all the Blockbuster horror flicks on the shelf? I brought this movie home because a critic watched it and liked it and wrote about it. I assume now that the critic had a close personal connection with someone in Creature of Darkness (2009). Perhaps one of the actors owed him money.

Having said that, I  will not waste my time or yours ragging on this film. Some guy took the trouble to write a screenplay and direct it. Eleven actors got a payday out of it, as well as a new line in their resumes.  Somebody invested money in the movie. Why should I be a churl about it?

This is one of those indies wherein the director transports his script and actors up to Santa Clarita for a week-long shoot in the hills, including nights in the cold (actually 23 days and 23 nights; I underestimated the work that went into this flick), lines up an effects guy for some undergraduate work on a Mac when they get back, and boom, press the disk and ship it! It’s sort of like watching your frat and sorority friends making a movie. Story makes no sense whatever (even though the hero tells us “it’s just like Einstein said”). No hint, no morsel, no single moment, no nanosecond of humor onscreen. 2010 and this the 9,999th movie of its kind and Mark Stouffer wouldn’t or couldn’t crack a smile.

I was hoping for a commentary track, but no. Why did Stouffer make this movie? He’s done some good National Geographic work, won two Emmys and a bunch of other stuff, made some real movies, and…wha?… Mark, where’s your Wiki page? This can’t be right! Marty gets a page and you don’t? To read about you, I’ve gotta go to Linked In? Jesus, you work all your life, you sacrifice, you slave, you bleed, you rack up the honors, and then when you try to put up your page, or your wife tries to put up your page, or your kids try to put up your page, those idiots at Wikipedia keep taking it down, and you put it up again, and they take it down again, the bastards… Fine. Who needs it? I could care less. To hell with them. Don’t ever, I mean EVER, DON’T EVER EVER EVER PUT UP MY WIKI PAGE AGAIN GODDAMMIT!!

There being five young men and five young women in the film, I thought I’d try and guess in advance the order in which the monster kills them off. I got the first one right. A guy  asks his girlfriend to flash him – which she does with the camera modestly focused above her collarbones – hey, the movie’s already got an R, what’s the problem here? Stouffer is an old prude? Hoisting up the tank top was  integral to the plot! Don’t let her hoist in vain. So anyway, counting that behavior as sex, the guy is immediately doomed and dispatched forthwith. As I recall, the script did not even demand a scream from him. Some of these guys hate to scream! That’s what the girls are for. The angry Latino guy went next. I didn’t see that coming. Surprising, as his IMDB resume seems one of the most solid. Maybe he was being paid by the hour, or would only sign up for one day’s work. And by the way, this movie would have been improved by just losing the monster and concentrating on the existing interpersonal conflicts between the young men and women provided as victims. I guessed the third one to buy it, the gay guy. Not to stereotype but yes, he was made to scream. At this point, I began to wonder if only the guys were going to get killed. With no gratuitous bosom shots, perhaps Stouffer was going for some kind of Caged Heat on us. But no, the second-most spunky woman went down next. With a shriek more than a scream.

After that the director threw me a  curve. Turns out that the monster is not killing and eating, he’s collecting and, for example, the gay guy was “a perfect redhead with freckles.” (I hadn’t noticed.) So, speculate the survivors, two of them now are in especial danger because they are “perfect blacks,” or “perfect African Americans,” or “perfect Negroes,” I forget which. Definitely not “perfect N-words.” Santa Clarita is not Gropple, Alabama, after all.  Although “perfect” in this case seems to mean “almost able to pass.” Up to their realization that the monster wanted a matched pair of people of color, I hadn’t noticed the couple’s ethnicity at all. Couldn’t tell by looking. The woman’s hair was straighter than any process could produce.  Going forward, the director threw in some Ebonic dialog, just to keep the monster clear on his targets. The dude goes street, but maybe he’s just some white dude with a tan, black curly hair, and a jones for acting hip. You dig?  Though he does refer to himself at one point as an ebony meatloaf. And whatever my thoughts, the monster didn’t seem to have any doubts!

The monster takes over in the second half of the movie. Guy in black coat (to protect against UV, though it’s nighttime). Then guy in monster latex after the coat burns off. Then animatronic. (I was wrong about the effort and $$ spent on effects; more than I thought. A couple of guys labored over this thing.) Then animatronic monster parts that had been hacked off the main monster. Then digital animated monster. Then monster shadows on the cave wall. Bobblehead monster. I tried the shadows myself, using a hanky draped over my flatscreen. VP of Sales held the flashlight. Spooky.

Movie notes:

– Five guys in the group, and the biggest shlub, Devon Sawa, is supposed to be the Alpha dog (sorry, Devon).

– This is a group of 30s playing 20 with one female 40 playing 30 playing 20. You go, Girl!

– At least 3 Johnny Dramas here. Provides context for Entourage.

– Men’s gel still helps.

– Hey. No cell phone reception.

– “Courage doesn’t need explaining.”

– Hard to describe but there’s some stock music at one point in the movie that means a fire is going to start and then stuff is going to start blowing up. The track is instantly recognizable on a gut level: boinggg…boinggg… ding ding…ding… fwoosh!

– At the start of the movie, a guy shoots a ground squirrel with a rifle. What was that all about?

– Stouffer throws the gore fans a bone, literally – in this case, a complete, articulated spine.

– All that nature footage he shot in the past, seems like he could have gone natural here a little more, if you know what I mean.

– Stouffer. Any connection with the frozen dinners?

Final thoughts: Mark, you are no spring chicken. Use your time more wisely. Do not waste the remaining years before you go senile on something like this, even if you want to involve family in the project like you did here. Mark, you made this movie sixty years too late. Take all that money you spent on the monster (sorry, monster-fabrication guys, you seem nice in the Making Of feature) and next time give it to refugees, or for research into some horrible disease,  or even to the guy who asked me for change at the gas station this morning.

Watchmen (2009)

After I watch a movie, I read some reviews about it to find out whether I liked it or not. A.O. Scott does a nice job on Watchmen (2009), but he tells me that I didn’t like it as much as I thought I did. The gist of his argument seems to be that Zack Snyder brought the 80s graphic novel faithfully to the screen and that this was not a good thing: that the ideas in the book are dated and jejune. Scott’s review is so well-written that I felt ashamed to be writing one of mine own, this one in fact, and I put it aside unfinished.

But wait a minute. Of course the ideas in the book are dated. The ideas in Pride and Prejudice are dated. So what? And of course the ideas are the sort that would appeal to a teen reader. Watchmen was born as a series of comic books. A.O., grow down.

But then, I liked 300, so what do I know?

A.O. also calls out the primary sex scene in the movie as the worst of the year. Evidently A.O. steers clear of 99% of the DVDs on Blockbuster’s shelves. At any rate, what I saw in that scene was an ineffective Snyder attempt to maintain Watchmen’s PG-13 rating, an attempt doomed from the gitgo by the movie’s blue penis.

That blue penis. Over and over before watching the movie I heard about the blue pee pee. I was expecting gratuitous closeups of the prosthesis. I was expecting an azure member of a size worthy of the movie’s only true superhero. What th… The little guy was as unobtrusive in the movie as it was in the book. U.S. society is messed up wrt the phallus. Judd Apatow ran a couple of focus groups while making Funny People, to discover how many dick jokes in the movie would be too many dick jokes. The answer: you can’t have too many. And what is a man’s member a member of anyway?

I read Watchmen just before watching it. I like to read a book and then see the movie. If the movie heads off in some wrongheaded direction, I might shake my head philosophically, but my bile is not wont to rise when it happens. A shrug is sufficient. For example, Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth Bennet did not do it for me, but I have moved on. I do not brood. Kiera, go back to POTC before Jane Austen comes back from the grave to haunt you. OK, maybe a little brooding eventuated, but hey, Elizabeth Garvie in the role will suffice for me until Pride and Prejudice is remade yet again, which it will be.

In the 60s, I went gaga over Fowles’ The Magus. But then the movie version became my biggest book-to-movie disappointment. On the other hand, I read Robert Parker’s Appaloosa a while back and believe me, Ed Harris is the perfect Virgil Cole in the movie version. Ditto Tom Selleck as Parker’s Jesse Stone. Perhaps a reader who found Watchmen magical in the 80s and then waited twenty years for the movie might have problems with it, though I’m willing to bet that most of those folks – I’ve got no data – loved the movie.

Anyway, I liked Watchmen the movie better than Watchmen the graphic novel. Snyder left out the pirates and other boring stuff and stuck to the main line, getting it all in, or so it seemed to me. Fresh faces in his casting choices, a big plus. I watched the movie in pieces, as if it were a mini-series, so it didn’t seem to run long. And for me, if not for A. O. Scott, adding a collection of 80s tunes to the soundtrack tweaked the experience in a way not possible in a silent book. Even if those tunes have been played to death, which they have been.

There has been conversation about the excessive violence in the movie. Sorry, I must have been distracted by Maggie Gyllenhaal getting blown up in the Dark Knight, and The Joker’s pencil to the eyeball, and Saws I, II, III, IV, and V, and folks checking into hostels never to check out again, whatever, so that I missed the fact that Rorschach in prison got a little extreme. He does splash hot oil in a dude’s face, but see, I just watched Trailer Park of Terror (2008), in which a victim is lowered whole into hot oil like a very large freedom fry. At any rate, Snyder had obviously given up on his PG-13 quest by the time he cut together the prison fight scenes.

Near the end of the book and movie, Dr. Manhattan tells Ozymandias that he’s leaving for a galaxy where things aren’t so complicated. The average galaxy contains 100 billion stars and there are about 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe. I’m guessing that one collection of 100 billion stars is pretty much the same as another. Stick to your own galaxy, blue guy! Remember, wherever you go, there you are. And about creating some humans of your own: who do you think you are, God? Fundamentalists are outraged! God is not blue! And if you saw His pee pee…!

For recent urban total destruction, the late scenes in Watchmen are ok (reimagined from the original), but I liked the devastation in Knowing (2009) better –  speaking of freedom fries.

Finally, for your consideration, the beginning and end of the Watchmen review found on “Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.” A reviewer with his feet in the mud and head in the clouds:

“For conservative Christian audiences, the prospect of seeing Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is a non-starter. There is male frontal nudity (albeit blue and animated); numerous instances of blasphemy; shots of women’s breasts; gory violence; and a nude love-making scene… Watchmen is a long viewing. It is sometimes ponderous, grisly, and confusing, but for those who have read the book and have reasonable expectations of what can be done in cinematic form, it is an instant classic — a tour de force which asks universal questions through comic book characters. For Christians, Dr. Manhattan represents the seeker who questions the existence of God and the meaning of life. His questions are in part answered in the realization that life is a miracle, “gold from air,” unexplained by the processes of nature. When the movie is over, the character that viewers will be most interested in is Dr. Manhattan and his journey to another galaxy, a journey he wouldn’t make if he were just interested in matter.”

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

I like to go to plays. Not Broadway extravaganzas, but community and university theater productions. Unfortunately, my spouse doesn’t share this interest, which cuts back on my dramatical attendance, except when our daughter comes home for a visit. Fortunately, stage plays find their way onto the silver screen, and found their way to it even more in the 30s and 40s than today. Modern examples of the play-on-film would be Bug (2006) and Doubt: a Parable (2008), which I have reviewed. Unfortunately, we are not living in the age of Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams, except insofar as revivals and remakes allow us to do so. With all due respect, John Patrick Shanley, Tony or no Tony, is no Kaufman or Hart, the two who wrote the play from which  The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) derives, via the Epstein twins’ screenplay(the Epsteins of Casablanca fame).

TMWCTD is a comedy of great verbal energy, many fun cogs and wheels and conversational gizmos, jokes, gags, all done on the level of a New Yorker parlor drama. They don’t make them like this anymore – so dense, so many moving parts. As I watched Married Life (2007) the other night, I detected faint echoes from those lost days. Do I subscribe to the theory that civilization is headed downhill because of this and other portents? Nope, and besides, weighing and judging civilization and its components is far beyond my capacity to grok, at least in 1,000 words or less. (Do I believe the planet and the human race are headed downhill? Ulp!) But just because I don’t expect another TMWCTD to roll off the assembly line in 2010 doesn’t mean that I’ll have no chance to laugh at a movie. I watched Reno 911:Miami (2007)  again the other night with my spouse, and because she liked it, perhaps I’ll get to watch all 5 seasons again. Yay! In my defense, I think that the Marx brothers would like it too. And She’s Out of Your League (2010)? Not in TMWCTD’s league, but still, life is still good on the couch.

Most of  the topical content in TMWCTD has aged out, evaporated, leaving behind in the dialog a foundation of basic comic ideas: gone for most of us are an appreciation of Lucius Beebe’s penguins and octopus, Lana Turner’s sweater, Zazu Pitts, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and the larger-than-life Alexander Woolcott, who spent a weekend with Moss Hart, prompting Hart to wonder out loud, My God, what if he never left? and the play’s premise was born.

In TMWCTD, Jimmy Durante is funnier than I remember. Younger, too. Who fills the Durante niche in comedy today?  There’s bound to be someone. Early Jim Carey? It’s got to be someone who mugs outrageously and with unflagging energy. Vintage Robin Williams? Durante, suddenly seeming more  modern to me, makes me doubt the trope that some classic aspect of  screwball stage comedy is gone and isn’t coming back; perhaps it’s all just cycles and cycles and only a matter of time before we’ve gone in retrospect from Touch of Mink to Mash to Airplane to Knocked Up and back to Coconuts again. An extra four billion folks have arrived on the planet since TMWCTD was written. Even if they simply act like monkeys with typewriters, lost or missing dialogic brilliance ought to crop up now and again, out of the chaotic randomosity of crowds. Or will we just keep getting more video games instead? Great Britain bans EA’s Medal of Honor because it allows you to play on the side of the Taliban. That’s comedy, isn’t it?

Glenda the good witch works in TMWCTD without her wand.

Anne Sheridan plays the whole movie overdressed, but shows up 30s style for one scene in a thin silk blouse, confronting the camera face-to-face, so to speak, and proving without a doubt that she’s a mammal.

I’ve noticed more than once that watching two movies at the same time, interleaved as it were, or one after the other, offers perspectives that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, I saw Ameracord (1973) one Friday night in San Diego, followed by The Godfather (1972) on Saturday. Fellini’s artistry made The Godfather, seen so soon after, seem rather amateurish to me. Now that The Godfather has entered the pantheon of great films, any crudeness in its fabrication goes largely unnoticed. Every so often, when I stop to think about this, I feel privy to a cinematical secret, just because of that Friday and Saturday a long time ago. In the present instance, the two overlapping movies are TMWCTD and Repo Men (2010). Sure, there are chuckles in both, but in this example we learn that just talking at each other real fast can pack a punch greater than that felt by  cutting the other guy open, reaching inside him, and hauling out his mechanical stomach while wise-cracking about it. Just sayin.