Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes
YouTube viewing

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a film I had wanted to see for awhile. I went into it knowing nothing about it, expecting Vincent Price in a campy mad scientist flick, one with which I could laugh along. What I got was something more.

It's a simple revenge story: Price, the titular doctor, blames Joseph Cotten (!) for failing to save his wife on the operating table (though he did the best he could), so now Price has launched an elaborate scheme to kill Cotten and everyone involved in the failed operation, and boy, is it elaborate.

It's a vendetta worthy of a Bond villain, with a symbolic theme, perfectly timed death traps that would've taken months to plan individually, a henchman — or should I say henchwoman, a secret lair Dr. Evil would find excessive, and a shtick of his own: a fondness for the organ with a wardrobe Elton John would be embarrassed to wear.

It all sounds derivative, but the way it was done was something else. The first ten minutes are silent; Price doesn't speak for the first half hour. The score is minimal and non-intrusive. The editing is crisp and serves the story well. The set design and costumes are eye-catching. The acting is not tongue-in-cheek; everyone plays it straight.

And then there's Price. He has a thingamajig that makes him speak without moving his lips, though you see his jaw and Adam's apple move. His performance is mostly in his eyes and face and body. At times, he's disturbing to watch.

Director Robert Fuest keeps him from going too far overboard by focusing on atmosphere. He frames the shots well. The tension they generate is almost — dare I say it — Kubrickian.

Phibes isn't original by any means, but it's entirely watchable due to the magnetic cinematography, the bizarre visuals, and Price's performance. I have no doubt horror fans consider this an all-timer.

UPDATE 11.6.18: I didn't watch the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, until after writing about the original, because I didn't want to be disappointed by it, but it turns out it's almost as good. Fuest directs again, and co-writes. This time, Phibes travels to Egypt, pursuing an ancient legend that would revive his wife, but he's got competition from another dude who's pursuing the same legend. More scary, torturous deaths, more organ playing, even some legitimate humor. Both movies are good!

Monday, October 22, 2018

First Man

First Man
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

The moon was half full the day I saw First Man. I noticed it on my way home, the sky darkening early in the fall sky. Sometimes when I look at it, I wonder what our primitive ancestors made of it — an image in the sky that changes shape consistently. I'll bet they made up some pretty good stories about what it was and what it was for.

We can only guess whether they thought it was a place to which humans could visit.

Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, when Neil Armstrong made his "giant leap for mankind," with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. First Man makes us appreciate, with nail-biting, white-knuckle clarity, how utterly dangerous this venture was. No lie, some of those scenes in space were difficult to watch because the camera kept spinning and spinning.

This movie has been used as a piƱata by the right and the left for reasons too stupid to get into (seriously, I'm not even gonna justify them with links). I didn't read about any of it until after I saw the movie. I think they're both full of shit, as they usually are. And that's all I have to say about that.

Some very rich people are investing in space travel these days so some other rich people can pay for the privilege. The rest of us will have to wait our turn, and by then, who knows, we could all be dead. It seems to me space travel would be a good idea so we can think about living in places other than Earth — but what do I know? I'm not Elon Musk.

So how about that Damien Chazelle, huh? In a short time, he's established himself as a filmmaker to watch: one who takes on a variety of subjects with a vision for carrying them out. He gets some intense performances out of his actors, his cinematographers are distinctive, his Oscar-winning composer, Justin Hurwitz, is superb (I liked his work on First Man), and he's only 33. Dude's going places.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Blondie on a Budget

The 100 Years of Rita Hayworth Blogathon is an event celebrating the centennial of the actress's birth, hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. For a complete listing of participating blogs visit the host site.

Blondie on a Budget
YouTube viewing

Of course I read Blondie, along with all the other comic strips in the newspapers, growing up. I doubt I ever thought it was particularly hilarious; I just read it because it was there. As I got older, I appreciated its art more — creator Chic Young had a very elegant line that his successors duplicated almost as well — but I could never say I loved reading it.

If it had been removed from the daily lineup of strips, I wouldn't have missed it, though there are those who will always declare a jihad on their local paper should they dare to remove these grandfather strips, still taking up space which would be better served by newer, more diverse strips, but that's another issue.

I do respect Blondie's longevity, though, not only as a strip but as a multimedia franchise. Ivan recently did a piece on Blondie in other media. She and Dagwood were the stars of a sitcom long before the word existed, appearing in a mind-boggling 28 films in only twelve years, all with the same two stars, Penny Singleton & Arthur Lake.

Jeanine Basinger explained the appeal of Blondie in her book on marriage in the movies, I Do and I Don't:
... Blondie and Dagwood relieved marital pressure for the audience by reconstituting their ordinary problems into easily resolvable comedy. There's a comforting quality to them: they never change, they never fail. In what Preston Sturges called "this cockeyed caravan of life," they could be counted on.
I chose the film Blondie on a Budget to watch because of the presence of Rita Hayworth, the reason for this post. She made this film the year after Only Angels Have Wings, and she was a legitimate star at this point. The first of her four Life covers was in 1940. Budget was one of five films she made that year. The next year, she would team up with Fred Astaire for the first time, in You'll Never Get Rich. Did you know she was WB's first choice for Casablanca before Ingrid Bergman?

In Budget, Rita plays an old lover of Dagwood's who pops up for business reasons and just wants to hang out with him for awhile, though Blondie gets jealous anyway. Misunderstandings ensue, mostly money related, hence the title.

I laughed once, maybe twice, throughout the whole movie, and I use the word "laughed" very loosely. Watching this was painful. Dagwood is way more of a schlemiel than I remember from the strip, one completely lacking a spine. I didn't believe for a minute that Rita was ever attracted to him.

Blondie was more assertive than I remember her, but in the end, her story arc revolves around nothing more than a mink jacket she's just GOTTA HAVE. The best thing about this movie was the bratty kids!

Dagwood didn't eat one of his epic sandwiches, nor did he sleep on the couch or get his ass kicked by his boss, but at least he knocked down the mailman while running out the door. Singleton & Lake's hairdos made them look the part, and as far as I could tell, they were true to the characters, but man, am I glad domestic comedy has evolved beyond this.

As for Rita, she doesn't sing or dance, not that I really expected her to, but her character is pretty bland. Don't look for any hint of future Gilda here. The movie was a big disappointment overall.

A Rita Hayworth primer

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Neil Simon Blogathon begins here!

Today I take your links.

Tomorrow Paddy takes them.

Let's see what you got.

Post your links in the comments or tweet them to me @ratzo318.

Thanks for joining us in saluting this great writer.

My post is on Brighton Beach Memoirs.

Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
California Suite

Caftan Woman
Simon on The Phil Silvers Show

Poppity Talks Classic Film
Seems Like Old Times

Once Upon a Screen
The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Friday, October 12, 2018

Brighton Beach Memoirs

The Neil Simon Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of the great American playwright, who left this world for a better one less than two months ago. Paddy and I thank you for joining us. Be sure to check out the rest of the entries this weekend!

Brighton Beach Memoirs
YouTube viewing

The Alvin Theatre, on West 52nd Street in the heart of midtown Manhattan, was renamed for Neil Simon in 1983, so he was a big deal for a long time before the 80s, but growing up, I used to think he was around for less time than that. I vaguely recall seeing ads on TV for his plays, but I had no sense of his history.

I only know his plays from their film adaptations, but I have yet to find one I dislike. I discovered Simon during my video store years in the 90s. It took me awhile to tie the name to the stories, but once I did, I began to notice some commonalities.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

The James Mason Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of the actor, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the link at the host site.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)
YouTube viewing

Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait has nothing to do with the Don Ameche film of the same name; rather, it's a remake of the Robert Montgomery film Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which must have been a little confusing when it came out in 1978, but whatever. (In 2001, Chris Rock starred in a third version, Down to Earth.)

I wasn't fond of Jordan, not necessarily because of its premise — afterlife bureaucracy condemns a man to death before his time — but because of its poor plotting. Heaven attempts to improve on the original, and in a number of ways, it does, but I was still uncomfortable with the whole theme of fate, and things being "written," not to mention the lack of accountability for the mistakes made by the afterlife bureaucracy.

That said, Heaven was entertaining, in a 70s kind of way. Beatty not only starred and co-directed, he co-wrote the screenplay, with Elaine May.

Beatty was a "New Hollywood" icon. After the tremendous success of Bonnie and Clyde, he positioned himself as a multitasker, writing, producing and directing the films he wanted to make at a time when young filmmakers had an unprecedented level of power in Hollywood.

In the Peter Biskind book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the pages on Heaven depict Beatty as a "finicky, obsessive" nitpicker. He butted heads with Warner Brothers management over the film's budget before taking it to Paramount, where he fussed over the potential female leads for not being his ex-flame Julie Christie. In the end, he talked Christie herself into the film.

Beatty's perfectionism paid off: Heaven was nominated for nine Oscars, including Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay.

I didn't think it was nine Oscars worth of great, but I liked the humor, and the way the editing accentuated the pacing, making you really aware of the funny lines when they land. Dyan Cannon was great; she got a Supporting Actress nod — and so was Jack Warden, playing the same character as James Gleason in the original, and like him, getting a Supporting Actor nod.

We, however, are here today to talk about James Mason, taking over for Claude Rains in the role of Mr. Jordan and not doing much other than being stately and dignified.

Mason had a very long career, working steadily from the 30s to the 80s, mostly in high profile films on the big and small screens, including North by Northwest, A Star is Born, Lolita, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and many more.

His story was not unusual for Golden Age actors: started in British theater, then transitioned to the big screen during World War 2; came over to America and found greater fame. With his first wife, he co-wrote a book about cats, and illustrated it, too. Here's The Paris Review on his book, including some of his pen and ink drawings. They're pretty good.

Other films with James Mason:
Forever Darling

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

New release roundup for September '18

I saw both these films with Virginia and we liked them both. Why didn't I write full posts about them? Because I didn't.

-BlacKkKlansman. Spike Lee has been kinda so-so lately, so it's nice to see such a stylish and entertaining film from him again. John David Washington is the son of Denzel Washington; he had a small role in Malcolm X years ago, according to IMDB. He sounds a lot like his dad, too. The most memorable moment for me was when the "white power" rhetoric of the Klansmen was juxtaposed against the "black power" dogma of the black activists. Unexpected and unsettling — that's Spike at his best. Virginia was particularly interested in the true story angle.

- Juliet, Naked. The latest adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel got mediocre reviews, but I liked it — and not just because I'm a fan. The changes from the book didn't bother me much. As I told Virginia afterwards, Ethan Hawke's interpretation of his character's songs, good as they sounded, can never match the ones I imagined when I read the book. So while obviously we needed to hear his character's songs for the movie, a part of me almost wishes we didn't, if you know what I mean. A nice companion piece to High Fidelity.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A star is linked

Not a whole lot to talk about this month. Cynthia Nixon was robbed, the novel rewrite is going great, and things between me and Virginia are swell. The Neil Simon Blogathon is in a couple of weeks; there's still time to join Paddy and myself for the occasion, if you want in.

Let's jump straight to the links for once!

Raquel answers questions from her readers.

Ivan discusses the century-old comic strip Gasoline Alley and the two films inspired by it.

Jacqueline ponders whether this Depression-era film endorsed socialism.

Jennifer talks contemporary high school movies and compares them with her own experience.

Le writes about a very early Ernst Lubitsch silent film which challenges gender roles.

Variety's coverage of Cynthia Nixon's loss in the New York primaries.

What are Feedspot's choices for the Top 30 Classic Film Blogs?

The Wizard of Oz ruby slippers, after having gone missing for 13 years, have been found!

Gauging the truthiness of films "based on a true story."

Bullwinkle and political satire.

Is it possible liking trash cinema makes you smarter?

Claudette Colbert liked cooking desserts.

Armie Hammer hearts scooters.

Finally, best wishes to Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, who's recovering from surgery.