Friday, July 30, 2010

I Take This Oath / Police Rookie (1940), Sam Newfield.

Mike Hanagan is a veteran policeman who uncovers some juicy tidbits on the numbers racket, but right after a cozy dinner of "Irish turkey" (corned beef and cabbage) he gets bombed to pieces in his garage.  Son Steve decides to go through police training and track down the mugs that got his dear old da.  The story is toothless and predictable and despite a few actions scenes (car accidents and shootouts), unimaginative staging sees them fall flat.  Steve repeatedly bounces between clues to his father's death and being chewed out by the police captain for missing classes.  Baddies don't materialize until the end, which doesn't provide much tension, either!  A triangular love story is supposed to add a little sizzle but it's pretty clear that Steve's girlfriend just wants to get married as soon as he graduates.

The scene in which Steve is attempting to track down a shady character illustrates how poverty row B's err on the safe side with their perennially bland protagonists:  clearly ill at ease in a night club, Steve balks at the high price of a drink.  Feeling uncomfortable when a house girl asks him for a drink, he shuffles out and naively asks too many questions of the doorman.  I can't help but think that if this were an A picture (or at least a 50s B), the audience would escape with the character into the forbidden world of a seedy nightclub and at least enjoy the ambiance as he maneuvered the scene smoothly.  Instead in B-land we are stuck with a middle class schmuck as our tour guide.  Bah!

As actress Joyce Compton demonstrates, by 1940 women's hairdos got a little complicated.  Is it just me or is the guy on the left a dead ringer for Norm MacDonald?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Marooned (1969), John Sturges.

This seems like a movie that got way too much hype initially (it won an Oscar for special effects) and then fell quickly into disrepute as payback.  It gets a lot of slagging nowadays as a piece of crap but frankly, it's not bad!  Looking like it's leaping from a Sears Roebuck catalogue, what with all the primary colours and (by today's standards) cheap looking effects, it's a straightforward story of three astronauts whose rocket malfunctions on the way back from a space station stint.  They have 42 hours of oxygen and no booster rockets - WHAT WILL NASA DO?  Gregory Peck plays an emotionless physicist who doesn't see the logic in a rescue attempt and Gene Hackman is, as per usual, awesome.  A kind of rigid stoicism (parading as seriousness) that flows through this film makes it a little ridiculous.  The completely gorgeous Mariette Hartley is an automaton astronaut wife who tells the other automaton astronaut wives that the best remedy to the impending death of their husbands by slow suffocation is: c'mon gals, turn off your emotions!  There's a also little too many lingering shots of rinkydink model ships.  Oh, but taking a drink whenever one of the NASA eggheads says, "the numbers" would be a great way to further enjoy this one.

"Do not erase"! 

Keep the ladies alive taskforce!

Back in the zine-loving 90s this was one of my favourites, crammed with tiny print reviews of movie after movie and stitched together with love by some dude not too far away in Oregon who refused to publish his picture but described himself as a cross between Billy Dee Williams and Ron Jeremey.  I never did get this Jim Kelly premiere issue, but according to the Dear HNIC... letters, either #1 or #2  asked readers: "Why's the Brotha Always Gotta Die?"  As reader Arthur C wrote in his letter to the editor in one of the subsequent issues, "Something must be done.  I recently saw Alien Resurrection, Phantoms and Deep Rising.  And wouldn't' you know it...they killed the brothas.  With all that in mind, I'm starting the Keep the Brothas Alive Taskforce.  We're gonna harass the shit outta Hollywood until they let us live."  And true enough, Badazz Mofo was always asking WHY the brotha had to take a dirt nap, when the honky gets to save the day, get the girl, LIVE, etc.

Well, here it is almost fifteen years later (crap, look busy Jesus is coming!) and I have two questions to ask:  1)  did Hollywood ever wise up to Arthur C, and 2) why the LADIES always gotta die?  Are ladies the new brotha?  There's a hell of a lot of big Hollywood action movies these days where the violent death of a woman (wife, mother) provides that special kind of psychological depth a leading man might need.  I'd like to keep a tally because these flicks personally irritate the hell out of me!  Let's see: the first three that come to mind are Star Trek (2009), Shutter Island (2010), Inception (2010)...  I'll keep listing them as they come to me.  Sure, some of these have the wife death worked into the plot pretty well, but how many movies do we need on this freaking topic!?  Somehow a widower is the perfect male character to the contemporary screenwriter.  I guess if you are a lazy ass whose thinking can't rise above cliche, it's easier to make your male lead more noble and sensitive (and, yes, available) yet at the same time not coming across as a pussy by killing off his woman.  I choose to see this as a message to the audience that female characters are less interesting and disposable.  The experience of white ladies like mysself don't mean I can claim to know anything about what brothas are thinking when they get theirs onscreen, but c'mon!  Moratorium on the bereaved male lead!

If anyone wants to send me more flicks that fit this bill (major action film with male lead as widower) let me know and I'll compile them!  The Fugitive (1993), The Crow (1994), Minority Report (2002)...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Contemporary voices: what use is a B?

 The story stank, but he tried.

Were B's were a taboo subject in contemporary industry journals?  Luckily, no!  Cinematographer Phil Tannura advocated for creativity even in the most mundane assignments in a brief article submitted to American Cinematographer (September, 1941).  Behind the camera for Columbia's Bulldog Drummond series and other B products, Tannura went on to work in television towards the end of his career.  Tannura claims working in a B should be no source of shame to anyone and suggested that they instead should be viewed as opportunities to experiment with the latest technologies.  While a risk-averse mentality may rule A pictures and offer certain obstacles against innovation (such as "a director who is not particularly inclined to cooperate with the photographer, or a star who requires a certain specialized and conservative type of camera-treatment") the B's, according to Tannura, could be a place where a risk could be taken because who cares and who's watching!  "If you try out a lenses on a sequence or two," he reasons, "you're not jeopardizing either a big investment or the appearance of an important star...if you succeed, you've found something valuable; if the experiment isn't so successful you're still likely to be ahead, for you've been concentrating on your camera-technique rather than 'walking through' the assignment."

Unfortunately, Tannura does not name any B's that may have been putting his philosophy into practice.  However he received lukewarm recognition himself for putting his words into action when Harold V Cohen reviewed wartime dud Lucky Legs for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  "Tannura has done full justice to her titular props, but the tale... is just a little too indigestible."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

So Dark the Night (1946) and My Name is Julia Ross (1945), Joseph H Lewis.

As an AV Club commenter wrote about Robert Osborne, "no matter where he is, as soon as you spot him he takes a few steps toward you and bends his arm at the elbow."  (Sure, it's not beneath me to quote "Juanito" from a comments board).  It was B-movie kismet for me last night, thanks to Osborne and the brilliant programmers at TCM.  I had literally been adding So Dark the Night and other Joseph H Lewis films to my list of missing B-movie classics and the next evening I stumble on a Lewis film fest!  

Lewis toiled in the murky depths, cranking out genre B's like Bowery Boys and Lugosi vehicles for Monogram and PRC before hitting his stride with movies such as My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night.  Although these two were also made on tight schedules and limited budgets, they reveal what surprisingly good movies could come of this stringent process in the right hands.  Lewis appears to have had Val Lewton's gift of creating a world out of a few carefully placed props and, like Lewton's best works, these offer exotic settings for their more mature psychological mysteries.  Myron Meisel's essay "Joseph H Lewis, Tourist in the Asylum," (From Kings of the Bs, 1975) emphasizes Lewis' emerging skills in storytelling through camera placement in So Dark the Night.  Characters are separated from another through use of space and dolly work.  Their phobias and anxieties are expressed visually.  "From the opening," writes Meisel, "the film shows complete visual control."  My Name is Julia Ross had me tense for all 65 minutes.  I believe the film's sense of reality is rooted in its lack of showy effects - we as viewers are simply stuck as prisoners in the wood-paneled bedroom alongside Nina Foch's character, plotting desperate escape.  The limited number of shooting locations deepen the sense of being trapped in an inescapable place.  Each physical prop (a letter, a stone) becomes tangible tools in our own arsenal as we strategize how to break free.  Interestingly, the film shares certain (minimal) plot elements with Shutter Island which for all its play with effects, flashbacks and colour did nothing but alienate viewers to its character's mental state.

Whaddya think, the planetarium, or the NUT HOUSE?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hoosier Schoolmaster (1935), Lewis D Collins.

By Monogram standards, this one is pretty classy:  outdoor locations, a cast of dozens, smooth camera work!  It even has a pig on a leash!   Like The Abe Lincoln of Ninth Ave, it's another 30s Monogram whose hero (in this case ex-Civil War soldier Ralph Hartsook) romanticizes the myth of Honest Abe.    In imitation of his idol, Hartsook dons a stovepipe hat to teach the backwoods children of Indiana in a log cabin, easily instilling respect for books and long words and such.  He even takes a shine to Hannah, a "bound girl" pseudo-slave who does all the chores for a local burgher's family.  Now, if Hannah had been black, that would have been something to write home about!  However, she's blonder than a poster child of the Hitler Youth!

"Bound girl" Hannah throws a wink to her brother Shocky.

Hoosier Schoolmaster is a safe, simple story for white folks but it's not unintelligent.  Again, I'm surprised at Monogram's achievement here:  it's well executed -- nicely paced and well acted.  Fred Kohler Jr is great as cartoonish, Lil Abner-esque gentle musclehead Bud and Norman Foster carries the movie well.  He's also foxier than the original Rail Splitter, if you ask me!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Santo Contra la Invasion de los Marcianos (1967), Alfredo B. Cravenna.

Jeesh, why don't you take a picture, Professor?

Blurg!  Goddamnit, I couldn't figure out how to get the subtitles fired up and don't speak a lick of Spanish but decided to carry on... I have been told that black and white imagery is easier to shoot and to appreciate, because minus the distraction of colour you can focus on form, line, shape and pattern.  So, I thought maybe watching a black and white film I can't understand will really get me into the aesthetics! Santo Contra la Invasion de los Marcianos has a kind of cheap aesthetic but being made in 66 or 67 definitely has some gorgeous thin lines and funky touches.  I love the constant full screen shot of what people are watching on TV! 

So here's a stab:  in this one, martians land on earth and use their middle eyeball to make crowds of soccer fans disappear into thin air.  Santo periodically wrassles with the head martian (played, I believe, by El Nazi!) who paces the bridge of his tin can starship in dictatorial frustration wondering how to beat Mexico's all-time greatest wrestler. I like how Santo refuses to shave the pits and has a chunky ass in saggy leggings.  My cop uncle once counseled us never to take on a guy with a bigger ass than you.  Let this be a lesson, kids. 

Shirtless interstellar travelers?  Smells like Wrath of Khan in here!