Saturday, February 25, 2017

A not-so-fine pair

I was looking through my DVR to see which of the unwatched movies on it were avilable on DVD for me to write a post about. Among them was A Fine Pair, which has received a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive. I don't think I'd spend that kind of money on this movie, however.

The movie starts off with one of those obviously 1960s scores, this one courtesy of Ennio Morricone, and scenes of an airplane landing in New York. Italian woman Esmeralda Marini (Claudia Cardinale) goes through customs, and then gets in a cab and orders it to follow another car! She winds up at police headquarters. The man she was following is Capt. Mike Harmon (Rock Hudson), whom she had met in Italy a dozen years earlier when he was working with her late father, also a police detective.

It turns out that she has a reason for seeing Harmon again after all these years. She was stupid enough to become a crook, engaging in a jewel heist. Not just that, but a particularly daring jewel heist, robbing the villa of the Fairchild family in lovely Kitzbühel, Austria. The Fairchilds are back in New York for the time being, and Esmeralda has decided she's got remorse about being involved in the heist. So she figures that the best way to get out of it is to put the jewels back, Jack of Diamonds style. That way, when the Fairchilds return, nobody will be any the wiser. A good police detective like Harmon is the only person who could get around the alarm system, which, combined with their previous relationship, is why she's picked him. (He's married, now, of course, although we never see his wife.)

So Harmon goes off to Austria with Esmeralda, falling in love with her along the way. He learns about the alarm system, and eventually comes up with some ridiculous plot to defeat it, which involves heating the room to 194 degrees Fahrenheit (I think that's what he said; one of the IMDb reviewers lists it as 134 degrees), making it like a sauna. But if he had to heat the room up like that, why wouldn't the alarm go off at room temperature, or while it was being heated up? It's all an excuse to get Cardinale to strip down to her bra in a scene filmed through an orange filter.

But the plot to put the jewels back works, and we're not even an hour into the movie! What's going on here? Of course, this means we have a twist, which is that Esmeralda tells Mark that she committed another heist in Rome. So off to Rome we go. But we also learn that perhaps getting into the Fairchild villa was a ruse so that Esmeralda could actually rob it. It all gets needlessly complicated with a bunch of twists and turns that continue once the action leaves Austria.

It's those twists and turns that make the movie a huge mess and ultimately a flop. Well, that's the big reason, I think; there's actually a lot more wrong. Esmeralda is such an annoying compulsive liar that I can't imagine anybody liking her. Even though the scenes at the Fairchild villa are over by the hour mark of the movie, the movie already then feels a lot longer than it is. And then there's the TCM print I watched. IMDb lists a running time of 113 minutes, which is also what's mentioned for the DVD release. The print TCM showed only ran 89 minutes, so I have no idea what was in the 24 minutes that were cut. Also, the print was panned-and-scanned down from 1.85:1 to 1.33:1, so the cinematography that should be lovely looks terrible. Jack of Diamonds is stylish and charming, if a mess; A Fine Pair is just a mess.

I'm sorry to say that I just didn't like A Fine Pair at all. I do like to say judge for yourself, and I suppose it would be nice if this had wound up in a box set of heist movies, or Rock Hudson movies, or something. But at the Warner Archive price?

Friday, February 24, 2017

23 Paces to Baker Street

I watched 23 Paces to Baker Street off my DVR recently because I knew it was coming up on the FXM Retro schedule. In fact there are two airings: today at 11:15 AM and tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM.

The movie starts with Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) dictating into a tape recorder in his flat in London. Obviously he's a writer of some sort; although we never see the outcome of his writing we learn pretty quickly that he's a playwright, and that his latest play was a hit on the other side of the Atlantic and is now being produced in London. We also learn that he went blind from some sort of accident. This blindness has turned him bitter, because he had a fiancée in the States, one Miss Jean Lennox (Vera Miles), whom he dumped after going blind because who'd want a blind guy like him? Anyhow, Phillip leaves his secretary Bob (Cecil Parker) to do up the typing while Phillip nips off to the pub down the street.

While at the pub, Phillip sits next to a glass wall dividing two parts of the pub, so we can see two people come in on the other side, and start talking. Phillip only hears part of the conversation, but it's clear that the woman in the conversation is being asked to do something that she doesn't want, and something that sounds as though it could be criminal! And since Hollywood has the trope of the blind man who can see more than all the sighted people put together, we know that Phillip's belief that there's a criminal plot afoot is going to be borne out to be true. This even though he goes to the police and is rebuffed.

Phillip is undeterred, and sets out to stop the crime himself, with the help of Bob, who can see and follow a nursemaid who might have something to do with the plot, as well as Jean, who clearly still carries a torch for Phillip, having come all the way over from the States at a time when transatlantic travel wasn't so easy to be here. Of course, it's not an easy search, as this nursemaid could be working for any of dozens of people. It also doesn't take all that long for the bad guys to figure out that somebody is on to them, leading to one killing and another attempted killing. But will Phillip be able to stop the plot before it happens?

Actually, the part of the story about uncovering the criminal plot is wrapped up a good 10 minutes before the end of the movie, except that one member isn't caught, giving us ample time to have a climax reminiscent of the later Wait Until Dark. But you know that Phillip is going to survive and wind up with Jean, because Hollywood wouldn't give us a movie that offed him after making him the unbelieved hero for the rest of the film.

If 23 Paces to Baker Street has problems, it's that it's treading territory that's all too familiar. I mentioned the trope of the blind man who sees more than everybody else; there's also the trope of the person nobody believes, but is of course right, and the nefarious plot, and Hollywood's stereotypes of London. That having been said, everybody plays their parts well and the result is a movie that works without being anything special. I think you'll be entertained, but left with a feeling that there are movies out there that are a lot better.

There's one other problem, and that's that the print FXM showed the last time they ran it was panned and scanned from Cinemascope (which we see in the opening credits) down to 4:3. The movie did get a DVD release from the Fox MOD scheme, and is even on Blu-Ray. Amazon reviews say that the DVD is panned-and-scanned; I can't tell about the recent Blu-Ray release.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #137: TV Superheroes and Superpowers

This being Thursday, it's time for another Thursday Movie Picks, run by the Wandering Through the Shelves blog. This week is a TV edition. Normally I don't know that I would take part in a TV edition since I don't watch much episodic TV any more. But the theme is Superheroes and Superpowers, and I had some fun thinking of old TV shows and looking for clips on Youtube:

(The New Adventures of) Wonder Woman (1975-1979). Lynda Carter spinning. What more needs to be said? This one showed up on MeTV on Saturday nights some time back -- heck, it might still be there as I haven't paid that much attention to the schedule. I know The Rifleman is on during Saturday dinner and The Love Boat during Sunday dinner, but that's about it. Lynda Carter played the superhero who changed into her skimpy outfit by doing a ballet/figure skating spin, combined with ultra cheesy music and effects. But with Lynda Carter, what's not to love?

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970). Barbara Eden in those skimpy outfits. Well, genies aren't superheroes, but she certainly had supernatural powers that mere mortals don't. Oh, and as a kid watching syndicated rerums, I noticed that they had that guy from Dallas. I also recognized the name of the show's creator, Sidney Sheldon, from trashy novels like "Rage of Angels" (full disclosure: I've never actually read any of Sheldon's novels; I just recognize the names from the advertisements). It was only much later that I learned Sheldon won a screenwriting Oscar for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). Lucy Lawless and Renée O'Connor are both lovely to look at in outfits that seem inspired by the tunics male leads wore in all those old Hollywood sword and sandal epics. I don't think anybody was actually supposed to take this one seriously.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Another set of movies I've blogged about before, February 22-23, 2017

Normally, I like to mention the movies that are coming up on FXM Retro after being off the channel for a while, what with their habit of running a movie into the ground, locking it away for a longer period, and then taking it back out of their vaults to run it into the ground again. I have no idea how effective this programming strategy is, but then I'm not in the TV business. But considering the number of movies I've blogged about, it shouldn't surprise me that there are a lot on the TCM schedule that I've already blogged about.

I thought I had blogged about The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond before, but a search of the blog claims I've only mentioned it once, back in 2010. I think I wouldn't have seen the movie since that airing either, so I don't really want to do a full-length post on it at this point. Too long since I've seen it. Anyhow, it's coming up on TCM at 12:30 PM today

Roman Holiday comes up at 8:00 PM, and is a great selection for the "start of prime time" slot, I think. It's been almost eight years since I blogged about it, although I think I may have watched since, in whatever year, Essentials Jr. had the child actress co-hosting. How long has that been? The franchise was even discontinued last summer. But it's a great movie and certainly suitable for older kids. (Younger kids may find it has a relative lack of action.)

Roman Holiday is followed by the Pete Smith short Seeing Hands, which I think is one of the best of the series. It's about a blind man who wound up being able to do his part in the war effort thanks to his seeing-eye dog.

I'm also looking forward to another airing of Sadie Thompson, although it's one I haven't blogged about. It'll be on early tomorrow morning at 5:00 AM. It is, I think, the first screen version of the Somerset Maugham story which would eventually get titled Rain; under that title there was a prominent early 1930s movie with Joan Crawford. Here, Gloria Swanson plays the title role, a woman of ill repute fleeing the US who winds up stuck on a South Pacific island and raising passion in all the men in her life, including the man of the cloth who's trying to reform her. I've also mentioned the story in the form of the race movie Dirty Gertie from Harlem, USA.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

So Miloš Forman turned 85 over the weekend

I didn't realize that director Miloš Forman, who started his career in Communist Czechoslovakia before fleeing to the west and making such classic movies as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, had a big birthday over the weekend. The folks at Radio Prague, unsurprisingly, did know, and ran a piece on it.

The piece is an interview with a British author, Peter Hames, who wrote a book (I haven't read it) on the Czechoslovak New Wave, of which Forman was a part. The interview covers Forman's work both in Czechoslovakia and Hollywood, and is generally interesting and informative, certainly I'd think for people who don't know much about Forman. I liked his comments about Loves of a Blonde and especially The Firemen's Ball, and agree with the author that especially in the latter movie the universality of Forman's humor comes out.

If you want to listen to the interview, the page linked above offers a streaming option. There's also a link to download the MP3 file here; that link is about 5.0MB and a little under six minutes. And as usual Radio Prague's articles are transcripts of the story.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Florence Foster Jenkins

I don't go to the movie theater very often, but when I had an afternoon off last summer, I took the chance to watch Florence Foster Jenkins. With it being up for a couple of Oscars this week, and with it now available on DVD, I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

It's based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins (played by Merrill Streep), a musical prodigy who when she was about 9 or 10 years old performed a piano recital in the Rutherford Hayes-era White House. However, she contracted syphilis from her first husband when they got married, and that led to hand injuries that scuppered any piano career. She became a patron of the arts and fancied herself a singer.

Most of that, however, is backstory to where the movie begins, which is in 1944. Jenkins and her second, common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) run a private club that puts on elaborate performances called tableaux vivants that to me look like a high-class version of vaudeville, but that's beside the point. St. Clair also manages the occasion recital for Florence, which is by invitation only. The reason why these recitals are invitation-only is because Florence turns out to be the world's worst singer. (Whether she knew it and was in on the joke, or whether she was truly serious, is a question for some debate.)

St. Clair manages Florence's career, as well has her personal life, trying to shield Florence from any criticism, and dealing with Florence's advancing syphilis. Meanwhile, St. Clair has a woman on the side, since he and Florence have a tacit agreement that he can never have sex with her, what with that syphilis. How aware she was of any such relationship (represented here by Rebecca Ferguson as Kathleen) is probably a matter for debate too. And then there's getting a new accompanist for Florence. All the pianists are horrified by her singing and most of them don't play in her style, such as it is. The only one who can is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), although he's quite frankly incredulous that Florence plans to sing.

While St. Clair goes off to Long Island to spend some quality time with Kathleen, Florence decides to surprise him. First, she makes some recordings, ostensibly for her patrons, although we know those recordings are going to make it out into the public. More worringly for St. Clair is that Florence, of her own accord, decides to rent out Carnegie Hall for a public concert! There's no possible way St. Clair can keep Florence from learning the truth about what everybody thinks of her singing now, and Cosme is worried that this will ruin his career.

Florence Foster Jenkins is ultimately at its heart not a biopic; it only covers two or three years of Jenkins' life and compresses them into a few months. It's more of a love story, with St. Clair having to face the question of how far he's going to go to make his wife happy. He doesn't ever want to hurt her with knowledge of his mistress Kathleen, and he doesn't want her to have to deal with the withering criticism of her singing that's sure to come. But at the same time, he doesn't want to steal her life's ambition, and it makes for an interesting conflict, open to both humor and drama. Having a story set in the 1940s also affords the opportunity for some nice set and costume design; the costumes received an Oscar nomination.

The movie's other nomination went to Meryl Streep (yet again) for Best Actress. Not a surprise, I suppose. But to be honest I found Hugh Grant to be the real revelation here. His St. Clair is no lightweight, but a fully-realized character full of the natural emotional conflicts that somebody would have in his situation. Grant effectively lets us see all of this. Simon Helberg also does surprisingly well as the pianist who is kind of confused by everything, but who ultimately doesn't want to hurt a kindly old lady like Florence either.

I can highly recommend Florence Foster Jenkins.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Remakes on the premium channels

I noticed that those of us with DirecTV have a Free Preview weekend running through the 20th, which I would presume means the midnight between Monday and Tuesday. So I was paying a bit more attention to what's on those channels, and noticed a couple of American remakes of British classics.

First is the Tom Hanks version of The Ladykillers, which will be on Showtime Women at 3:00 PM today, and again at 1:35 AM tomorrow, or overnight tonight, since that would be Sunday evening Pacific time if you've got the east coast feed. I haven't seen this version of the Ealing Studios classic about a bunch of guys who plan to rob a bank, and hole up in the boarding house of an elderly lady to plot the robbery, only for things to go awry when the elderly woman figures out what's going on. I have to admit that I personally prefer some of the other comedies to The Ladykillers, but that a whole lot of people consider it to be one of the very best movies from Ealing's output. (I prefer The Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts and Coronets.)

Tomorrow morning at 5:30 AM on TMC Xtra you can watch the 2006 film School for Scoundrels. I haven't seen this remake either, so I can't comment on it any more than the plot synopsis and reviews I've read. Jon Heder plays a New York parking cop who loses his girl, and takes an assertiveness class from Billy Bob Thornton to try to get the girl back. Only, he apparently finds out that the Thornton character also wants to win the girl's heart, so Heder and the rest of the students try to turn the table on Thornton. IMDb reivews vary widely on this one. Then again, I had significant problems with the original, too.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Throw Momma From the Train

So I got around to watching Throw Momma From the Train again for the first time in quite a few years, having DVRed it some months back. It's available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and not overly expensive, so I'm OK doing a full-length post on it.

Billy Crystal stars as Larry Donner, a writer with a serious case of writer's block. He can't even figure out the right adjective to use to describe the night in the opening sentence of his story. (Not dark and/or stormy, I presume.) His life is a mess in a bunch of other ways. He's a divorcé, and his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) authored an extremely successful book that Larry insists was his idea. Meanwhile, he teaches creative writing a bunch of inept misfits a the local college, and is trying to start a romance with anthropology professor Beth (Kim Greist).

Owen (Danny DeVito) is one of Larry's students. He's a man-child, living with his mother "Momma" (Anne Ramsey). She's a handful, in need of quite a bit of attention and constantly hectoring Owen when he doesn't give him that attention. In fact, Momma is so bad that Owen has fantasies about killing her. But he could never bring himself to actually do the deed. Meanwhile, he's also perpetually pestering Larry to read and critique his terrible stories, not giving Larry a moment's peace.

And then, one day, Owen overhears Larry talking to Beth, talking about his ex-wife and how he wishes she were dead. Owen talks to Larry, and learns that neither of them could really kill somebody (and this is also why Owen's mystery stories don't work) because both of them have too obvious a motive. Figure out a way to obscure the motive, and come up with a plausible alibi, and you've got your murder mystery. Owen, for his part, goes off and sees a revival theater's showing of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Well, if you know the plot of that one, you'll already know what idea Owen is going to get: Owen could kill Larry's ex-wife for him, and in exchange Larry can kill Momma.

Naturally that's utter nonsense and wouldn't work in real life. But Owen isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, and goes off to Hawaii where Larry's ex-wife is now living. He's on a boat to Maui with her, and sees her leaning over a railing to retrieve an earring, giving Owen the perfect opportunity to.... (I was reminded here of Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black here; that movie just happens to be Truffaut's homage to Hitchcock.) The next morning, Owen calls and says he's killed Larry's ex-wife, and he'll introduce Larry to Momma so Larry can fulfill his part of the bargain. Not that Larry realized he had entered into any bargain.

Meanwhile, suspicion for the ex-wife's disappearance and presumed death falls on Larry, so he has to get away, and winds up spending time at Owen's house, which is where he meets Momma. Larry could never kill anybody, but then he'd never met Momma before.

There's a lot to like about Throw Momma from the Train. This starts with the characters, who are reasonably well-drawn. Billy Crystal has no difficulty with his writer/professor, while Danny DeVito is also well-suited to playing Owen; both do a fine job. Kate Mulgrew's role is smaller, but watching her you can understand why Larry hates his ex-wife so much. Larry's students other than Owen are mostly stock characters, but those characters are there in clear supporting roles and they all fit their parts just fine, as does Branford Marsalis as Larry's neighbor. Stealing the show is Anne Ramsey as Momma. She's vicious, nasty, and non-stop at it, making it easy for even somebody with the patience of a saint to get fed up with her and wishing her dead. Ramsey was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for this, and richly deserves the nomination.

Everybody's helped by a well-written story. This is a black comedy, and boy are there a lot of laughs here. If there are any weakneses, it's a few of the scenes between Larry and Beth. I'm not certain if it's because of Kim Greist's performance, or because of the way the character is written. But these spots don't bring the movie down very much.

The next time Throw Momma From the Train comes up on TV, do yourself a favor and watch it.

Newtork again

I never did do a full-length post on Network, before, and to be honest, I haven't watched it since before the last time I mentioned it at any reasonable length. Because of that I don't really want to do a full-length post on it now, as there's so much that I'd miss. But I do want to point out that it's running again tonight at 10:30 PM on TCM. The movie is available on DVD, although Amazon's current low price seems to be for Prime members only, which does not describe me. The TCM Shop does have it, too, for a slightly higher, but not outrageously high price. Nothing like the Criterion Collection prices.

If I were going to make a comment about Network, it would be more or less the same thing that I said when I wrote about the movie five years ago. There's a lot to be said in favor of the movie and its utterly sardonic look at the world of television, a world with which screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was intimately familiar. Indeed, much of that dark humor can also be found in his earlier movie The Hospital. It's fun to see how everybody wants to use a movie like Network to confirm their political biases, but a bit tedious when so many of the people doing it are doing it toward one particular channel that didn't exist back in 1976.

In reading a little bit more about Network this week, I noticed that Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Beatrice Straight gets surprisingly little on-screen time for it. I don't remember all of the other peformances, although I probably should have seen all of them at some point or another, unless I have one of those blind spots that that other blogathon is about. (Come to think about it, I don't think I've seem Carrie, for which Piper Laurie was nominated, before.) But she beat out Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver?

Friday, February 17, 2017

Some brief updates

In looking through the bloggers who, like me, are taking part in the weekly Thursday Movie Picks blogathon, I've realized that there are more people to add to the blogroll. I intend to get to that over the weekend.

I've also got a few more movies to do full-length posts about over the weekend. My schedule has been a bit hectic the past week or so, but is finally returning to normal and I have a full weekend all to myself. Monday's a government holiday here in the US, but it's not as if I get the day off.

And most importantly, thankfully nobody big has died necessitating a blog post recently, looking for more pictures. I actually keep a running deadpool in my head of which stars are most likely to be the next one to die. Pathetic, isn't it.