Movie Roundup: Down With Ghana Edition

Between the World Cup, a DVD buying binge and a nice couple of months on TCM I’m way, way behind on my film capsuling. I’ll try to speed things along with some shorter comments here, though, powered by rum and cola (we’re out of vodka) who knows how that’ll work.

Nights Of Cabiria – There has been many a film about a hooker with a heart of gold, but none is so good as this Federico Fellini film starring his wife, Giulietta Masina in what appears to be universally regarded as one of the all-time great screen performances. Everything terrible that can happen to her does, yet she continues to trudge through life with a charmingly enigmatic smile. One of those must-see films that for some reason I’m only know getting around to seeing, even though the film played for weeks at my theatre when I started working there some eight years ago (and was a huge hit, by the way).

The Wind And The Lion – In early 20th Century Morocco, Sean Connery, the leader of the Berbers, kidnaps Candace Bergan and the US government, led by show-boating president Teddy Roosevelt (played by Brian Keith, the dad in The Parent Trap) tries to get her back. Of course, Bergan gradually comes to see the justice of the Berbers cause (independence or something) as she develops something like a romantic relationship with Connery, Written and directed by John Milius, the auteur behind Conan The Barbarian (#10, 1982) and Red Dawn (#25, 1984). The #9 film of 1975.

Take Me Out To The Ballgame – Mediocrity of a musical starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, who did much better in On The Town. There’s some historical baseball truth to it’s story of ballplayers who moonlights as vaudevillians, and of course in the gambling scandal that ensues as part of the “plot”. It’s nice to see co-star Esther Williams find a pool to take a quick swim in, she always seems so parched. Other than that there’s not much to love here.

Dark Command – Coming off their breakthrough hit in John Ford’s Stagecoach, John Wayne and Claire Trevor were reunited in this early noir Western directed by Raoul Walsh, a very good action film director who doesn’t seem to have ever reached the heights of Ford or Hawks or even Curtiz, and thus has a sizable following among film geeks. It’s an odd adaptation of the “Bloody Quantrill” story from Kansas during the Civil War. Wayne plays an uneducated yet honorable sheriff, Walter Pidgeon the villainous school teacher turned vicious Confederate guerrilla, Claire Trevor the woman they inevitably fight over and Roy Rogers plays her brother, who adds some interesting moral complexity as her brother, a sympathetic character who commits cold-blooded murder. It’s an entertaining yet surprisingly dark film that marks perhaps the first incursion of the noir style onto the generic Western formula.

The Cat’s Meow – Put Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies and Thomas Ince together on a yacht and what could go wrong? Well, according to director Peter Bogdanovich, Hearst killed Ince because Chaplin was hitting on Davies. This movie seems like it should be good, but it really isn’t. Kirsten Dunst is as cute as ever as Davies, but Edward Hermann (a character actor I generally like) is just silly as Hearst, Cary Elwes is largely annoying as Ince and Eddie Izzard’s Chaplin is just plain dull. Jennifer Tilly is mildly amusing as proto-gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and Joanna Lumley from Absolutely Fabulous is in there somewhere. It’s obvious Bogdanovich has a lot of love for these characters and this time period, but too much so: his inner geek is showing and it isn’t pretty, it’s mediocre. The #21 film of 2001, right behind Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.

Tomorrow Is Forever – Decent melodrama starring Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert. Welles goes off to World War I, leaving wife Colbert behind. When he’s horribly maimed and disfigured in the war, he makes sure she thinks he’s dead. 20 some years later, Welles, with a nice German accent and a beard (and a very young Natalie Wood) comes to work with Colbert’s new husband on some anti-Nazi thing for the next war, and tries to persuade his son (who he didn’t know existed) not to join the army like he did. I kept hoping Welles would actually turn out to be a Nazi spy or something, but instead it’s just a relatively conventional family melodrama.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Marilyn Monroe and jane Russell on a boat to Paris, in search of love and riches. The film is bookended by two terrific musical sequences: the can’t look away opening duet (Two Little Girls From Little Rock) and the justly famous Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend. In between is a brilliant comic performance from Monroe, some interestingly twisted and even subversive plot and one truly weird courtroom scene.

X-Men 3 – Not as good, but not appreciably worse than either of the first two films, which, unlike most geeks I know, I wasn’t a big fan of anyway. There’s lots of potential for political commentary here, gay rights, racism, abortion, what have you, but it’s way too much of a mess, and director Brett Ratner is too much of a hack, for anything coherent to come out of it. There are some decent action sequences, but like the first two, far too many characters too care about, and not enough action to overwhelm the conventional theatrics of their relationships. The ideal X-Men movie would have less characters and the same amount of action or the same amount of characters and more action. instead all three strike a middle ground that doesn’t work well enough on either level for the films to be successful.

Donovan’s Reef – A late career comedy from John Ford and John Wayne about a group of WW2 vets retired to a quiet Pacific Island. Their peace is disrupted when one of their daughters (Elizabeth Allen) shows up from Boston to inspect their way of life. Lee Marvin is merely underused as Wayne’s brawl-happy buddy, but Jack Warden, as Allen’s father, is absent for almost the entire film. The movie’s high on light comedy and entertaining, non-insulting exotica. I liked best that Allen figured out the silly ruse Wayne and the Polynesian kids were perpetrating on their own, without any of the audience pandering you expect from light comedies nowadays.

Mission: Impossible 3 – Writer-director J. J. Abrams essentially adapts the themes of his fine TV series Alias to the Mission: Impossible universe in this decent action film. It’s not nearly as good as Brian DePalma’s frenetic original, but neither is it nearly as bad as John Woo’s execrable part 2. The action sequences are fine, the plot is decent, the performances are good (though Keri Russell (Felicity) is woefully underused). Philip Seymour Hoffman acts Tom Cruise off the screen, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?

Flying Leathernecks – Nicholas Ray directs John Wayne and Robert Ryan in this seemingly conventional World War II film about conflict methods of commanding men. Wayne’s the hard-ass tyrant and Ryan’s the sensitive everybody’s his friend type. What’s interesting is that both men are whole characters, and each has a reasonable claim to correctness, though in the end Wayne is clearly the winner of this ideological struggle. Both actors are terrific, as always, and the action sequences (dogfights and all that) are very effective.

The Hill – Sean Connery stars in this Sidney Lumet film about abuses at a British prison camp during World War 2. Kind of like The Bridge On The River Kwai, except the prison is for and run by British soldiers and instead of a bridge to build there’s a hill to march up and down. The black and white cinematography (lots of close-ups) and the hysterical performances build a great amount of tension as Connery’s small band of prisoners are tortured by a sadistic commandant and that abuse is ignored by the bureaucratic camp boss. The real revelation, however, is Ossie Davis, who I’d never seen but as a little old man (in films like Do The Right Thing) but is instead big and muscular and athletic here. His acting’s great, his character is a bit like the black man in the insane asylum in Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor who thinks he’s a KKK member. An interesting performance in an intense, effective prison melodrama. The #13 film of 1965.

She Done Him Wrong – Cary Grant stars in this Mae West film. The plot’s impenetrable, neither the wife nor I really had any idea what was going on, but West’s a charismatic enough performer that you could almost forgive it that. It was West’s first feature film, and does have some of her signature one-liners and inimitable style.

Ninotchka – Greta Garbo plays a straight-laced Soviet bureaucrat sent to Paris to corral some drunken agents who then flaws into a romantic corruption herself in this Ernst Lubitsch film that’s as fine an example of any of his unique and brilliant comic “touch”. A decade after her peak in the silent era, its still quite clear why Garbo was such a tremendous star, she’s a brilliant actress and it’s near impossible to take your eyes off her. I think I may prefer Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner, but I certainly love them both. The screenplay was co-written by no less than Billy Wilder.

Battleground – The dictionary definition of a World War II movie is this William Wellman film about the Battle Of The Bulge with members of the 101st Airborne who were trapped behind enemy lines at Bastogne. The cast is fine: Van Johnson, James Whitmore, John Hodiak and Ricardo Montalban (Khan!) are the biggest names. Essential viewing for any fan of the genre, but probably not otherwise.

Baby Doll – Elia Kazan adapts another Tenessee Williams play, this one starring Karl Malden as a man who has his very young bride romanced away from him by Eli Wallach. Wallach thinks malden burned down his cotton gin (which he did) so he tries to get his wife away from him on her birthday (the date when Malden will finally be allowed to consummate their marriage. It’s Wallach’s first feature film, and he’s really good. Malden’s fine as well and Carroll Baker’s exactly what she’s supposed to be. One can’t help but suspect that Baker’s given age in the film is at least 5 years older than what Williams intended, though the film drew protests and got itself banned anyway.

The River – Jean Renoir goes to India in this beautiful film about the twin wonders of the subcontinent and Technicolor. The plot is typical coming of age story stuff about three girls in love with a handicapped veteran who moves in next door to their family’s big colonial house. Renoir manages to avoid travelogue exoticism, but still manages to depict the fascinating beauty of an unfamiliar place. The film is episodic in nature, but some of those episodes are truly amazing: when two girls following the third as she walks with and kisses the veteran, a heartbreaking exchange at a dinner table after a tragedy (daughter asks mother: “So we just go on as if nothing has happened?” mother replies: “No, we just go on.”) and one of my all-time favorite dance sequences.

Hell Is For Heroes – This World War 2 film stars Steve McQueen as a loose cannon private who refuses to follow orders properly yet ends up saving the platoon anyway. Along for the ride are James Coburn, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker and, uh, Bob Newhart. A taut little film about a small group of GIs holding off a much larger German force, first through subterfuge, then through good old-fashioned American bravery. Directed by Don Siegel, an interesting action movie auteur (Dirty Harry, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Shootist).

Only Angels Have Wings – Howard hawks film in which Cary Grant leads a group of pilots who deliver the mail high in the Andes. Jean Arthur costars as the new woman in town who can’t help but fall in love with him, Rita Hayworth plays his ex-girlfriend in town with her new husband, a pilot formerly blackballed for cowardice. It’s a prototypical Hawks drama, with different generations of men struggling to live up to an idealized code of honor and headstrong women trying to break them down and get them to loosen up. You see the same thing in To Have And Have Not, Rio Bravo and even Red River. This formula doesn’t really fit his comedies though (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Monkey Business? there’s something else going on there, I’m sure. Though Bringing Up Baby almost seems to fit, His Girl Friday too, hmmm).

Monkey Business – Speaking of Hawks, this time Cary Grant plays a research scientist looking for the fountain of youth. One of his lab monkeys manages to perfect the formula without his knowledge, and he and his wife (Ginger Rogers) take turn accidentally taking the formula and acting like crazed teenagers. Charles Coburn and the Marilyn Monroe costar. As a screwball comedy it’s perfectly fine, though not up to the standards of Hawks and Grant’s best.

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