Saturday, July 21, 2018

Weekend Movie Fun: Design for Living (1933) at the Egyptian Theatre

It was a "Lubitsch weekend" for me, seeing three films directed by Ernst Lubitsch on a big screen in under 24 hours!

Friday evening I saw LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN (1925) and SUMURUN (1920) in Westwood as part of UCLA's current Lubitsch retrospective.

This afternoon I attended a terrific event at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, consisting of a lecture and film. The talk, cosponsored by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, was by Allen Ellenberger, author of MIRIAM HOPKINS: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL, published last November by the University Press of Kentucky.

That was followed by the screening of a beautiful 35mm print of Hopkins starring with Fredric March and Gary Cooper in Lubitsch's DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933).

The hour-long discussion of Hopkins was amply illustrated, providing an interesting look at a woman about whom it seems there was no middle ground -- her coworkers either loved or hated her. She was viewed as a pain in the neck by some yet loved by others, including close friend Kay Francis, her costar in Lubitsch's TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932).

She also had a good relationship with her son Michael -- despite not telling him he was adopted until he was an adult. I'm looking forward to reading Ellenberger's book, which I purchased and had signed today.

I last saw DESIGN FOR LIVING almost a decade ago, and as I wrote then, I didn't much care for it at the time. I wanted to give it another try on a big screen, with an appreciative audience, and I sensed things would be different this time almost from the moment the film began. For one thing, March and Cooper were breathtakingly gorgeous in a beautiful 35mm print on the Egyptian's big screen!

The movie played far better with an audience; things I took more seriously watching it alone on the DVD today came across as much more lighthearted in tone. I found myself far more willing to suspend disbelief and buy into Hopkins' improbable relationships, simultaneously loving two men, and on the whole found it a lot more fun. It's possible that seeing the movie in a new context, after ten years of having seen a wide variety of pre-Code films, also helped me to view it differently.

Today's experience is why I sometimes find it valuable to take a second look at a film, especially if I have the opportunity to see it on a big screen with an audience; I also find that knowing what to expect can help me better appreciate a second viewing, especially if I'd been disconcerted the first time around. Another example is that earlier this year I gave IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) a second try and liked it more than I had half a decade before.

I enjoyed DESIGN FOR LIVING so much today that I think I will probably pick up the Criterion DVD before the annual Criterion summer sale ends at Barnes & Noble. Joseph McBride, who I met at UCLA earlier this month, contributes to the extras.

Next weekend there are more amazing movie opportunities at UCLA, ranging from a William Wyler film screened in nitrate to a Bob Fosse musical to a trio of silent Lubitsch films.

Tonight's Movies: Lady Windermere's Fan (1925) and Sumurun (1920) at UCLA

This has been a great weekend in Los Angeles for classic film fans in general and fans of director Ernst Lubitsch in particular!

Last night I attended a double bill of silent movies in the current Lubitsch retrospective at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater. Both titles, LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN (1925) and SUMURUN (1920), were shown in 35mm with live music by Cliff Retallick.

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN was the gem of the evening, a funny and touching 86-minute comedy-drama based on the play by Oscar Wilde.

The story concerns young Lady Windermere (May McAvoy), whose husband (Bert Lytell) receives a mysterious summons from a stranger, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich). Upon meeting Mrs. Erlynne, she proves to him that she is Lady Windermere's mother, long thought dead by all, including her daughter. And given Mrs. Erlynne's past, it seems that it should stay that way.

Mrs. Erlynne is low on funds and Lord Windermere provides her with checks which enable her to live a comfortable lifestyle, including attracting the attention of Lord Lorton (Edward Martindel). Mrs. Erlynne wants the Windermeres to invite her to Lady Windermere's birthday party in order to cement her social standing so that she can marry Lord Lorton -- but Lady Windermere has discovered the checks and, encouraged by Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman), thinks the worst about her husband and Mrs. Erlynne.

Lady Windermere is devastated and decides to go to Lord Darlington, who has made no secret of his love for her, but Mrs. Erlynne is determined that her daughter won't make the same mistakes she once made.

As the UCLA Archive's Jan-Christopher Horak noted in his introduction, this silent film doesn't use Wilde's script, even in the intertitle cards, yet it puts across the narrative beautifully. Horak also pointed out Lubitsch's extremely restrained use of intertitle cards to move the narrative forward; I was quite impressed with how much was communicated strictly with visuals.

The film was beautifully acted by the entire cast. I love Irene Rich in supporting roles in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947) and FORT APACHE (1948) so it was fascinating to see her starring in this a couple decades earlier. Rich's Mrs. Erlynne manages to simultaneously be calculating and sympathetic; she's a master manipulator but it's also clear she's trying to survive, and ultimately she is willing to sacrifice her reputation for her daughter, who still has no idea who she is.

Colman is incredibly handsome playing someone who, like Mrs. Erlynne, has a dual nature, being both a nice guy and a bit of a cad. He wants what he wants and will try his hardest to have it, even though it means hurting both the Windermeres, who are his friends.

McAvoy does a very nice job as innocent Lady Windermere, and I also thought Lytell was good as her husband; one initially anticipates he might be a bit of a stuffed shirt but he proves to be a loving husband who is quite sympathetic.

The movie was filmed by Charles Van Enger. The print we watched was lovely, with the nighttime scenes having a striking blue tint.

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN is in the public domain and available on DVD from multiple companies.

I was less taken with Lubitsch's German film SUMURUN (1920), which didn't sound especially interesting beforehand, and indeed, UCLA's Horak warned us that the plot was somewhat "incomprehensible." True! Still, I stayed for it because it seemed rather unlikely I'd have another chance to see it in 35mm with live music, and despite its flaws, overall I'm glad I saw it.

SUMURUN is an Arabian Nights-type tale about a wicked sheik (Paul Wegener) whose favorite wife Sumurun (Jenny Hasselqvist) loves a merchant (Harry Liedtke), so she encourages a slave trader (Paul Biensfeldt) to find someone else to distract the sheik. That turns out to be Yannaia (Pola Negri), a dancer, who is in turn loved by the very jealous Yeggar (director Lubitsch), a hunchback. Deaths ensue, along with romance.

Given the story, this doesn't feel much like a "Lubitsch film." Besides having a tangled plot, it goes on far too long; IMDb says it's an 85-minute film but UCLA showed a print which ran 103 minutes. It should have been 85 minutes, especially as the film has a couple false endings, but keeps going...and going!

That said, the movie was visually striking, filmed by Theodor Sparkuhl and Kurk Waschneck, and it was interesting seeing Lubitsch acting in a large role. Lubitsch didn't care for his own performance and decided to give up acting after this film!

SUMURUN admittedly isn't something I'd be anxious to revisit anytime soon, but it was worthwhile historically speaking, giving me a greater understanding of Lubitsch's career.

SUMURUN is available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

Finally, a word of appreciation for Cliff Retallick, who played in the dark last night for over three hours without a single sheet of music. The music was very well chosen, and having that live accompaniment made the screenings even more special.

Next up: A post on Saturday afternoon's screening of Lubitsch's DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Happy Birthday, Disneyland!

Today marks the 63rd anniversary of Disneyland's Opening Day on July 17, 1955.

I spent a couple of hours at the park this morning, enjoying the anniversary atmosphere. Here is Disneyland's iconic "Partners" statue, with Walt and Mickey looking back down Main Street towards the train station:


The Town Square flagpole plaque which displays part of Walt's Opening Day speech. "To all who come to this happy place, welcome!"


Some of the lovely summer flowers seen today at the Hub and Town Square:




Sleeping Beauty Castle, just as the sun began to peek out on a gray morning:


Happy Birthday, dear Disneyland!

Previous Disneyland Birthday Posts: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015 (and more here), 2016, and 2017.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Skyscraper (2018)

Three summers ago I thoroughly enjoyed Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in the disaster film SAN ANDREAS (2015), which managed to simultaneously be absurd and completely entertaining.

Consequently, when I saw the trailer for SKYSCRAPER (2018) I thought "That's for me!" Normally I'd have trouble with the concept of kids trapped in a TOWERING INFERNO type situation but I was pretty sure the movie would be just goofy enough that I wouldn't take it seriously...and besides, there's no way the Rock's kids are going to die in the movie. Correct on both counts! (And if you think that's a spoiler I'm not sure what to say.)

Justin Chang's Los Angeles Times review, describing the movie as "blissfully stupid and thoroughly irresistible" sealed the deal so off I went, and I had a wonderfully good time.

The Rock plays Will Sawyer, a security expert called in to give a second opinion on the protection systems for a towering (sorry) new building in Hong Kong called the Pearl. Unfortunately a group of baddies (including Roland Moller and Noah Taylor) have it in for the building's owner (Chin Han) so they decide to wreak havoc, starting with setting the Pearl on fire.

Unfortunately Will's wife Sarah (Neve Campbell of PARTY OF FIVE) and their two kids (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) come back early from a zoo excursion and are trapped inside. It's up to Will to find a way to get them out.

The poster above says pretty much everything there is to say about Will's exploits in the movie, which defy the laws of physics time and again...and did I mention that Will has a prosthetic leg?!

It's a disaster movie mashed up with LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007), complete with Hannah Quinlivan as a Maggie Q-style character who casually offs anyone in her way; and like LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, there are also characters in service to the villains who neglect to deduce that they will be killed themselves the minute they're no longer useful. I've seen more people killed while sitting at computers in movies in the last few days than I could count!

There's some humor, intentional and otherwise, here and there to lighten things up. Johnson has the rare gift of being completely invested in his character, with the audience rooting for him all the way, while simultaneously having a light touch that communicates to the audience not to take it all too seriously. (I did wonder how many issues Will's kids would later have with PTSD after the harrowing situations they went through but then told myself not to go there...)

The movie hit peak bliss at the end, when a character said a line borrowed straight out of the finale of SAN ANDREAS, "We rebuild." Beautiful. It would be hilarious seeing those movies on a double bill.

Other things I liked: The interracial marriage of Johnson and Campbell, which reflects families I know myself, is never commented on. It just is. Johnson and Campbell have a very nice chemistry together, and Campbell's Sarah is no helpless damsel in distress, which was quite satisfying.

Likewise, there is very little emphasis on Will being disabled. He simply is, and life moves on. Indeed, he feels gratitude that the incident which took his leg led him to meet his wife, a former Army surgeon. An acquaintance of mine, Kristen Lopez, wrote an interesting review for SlashFilm about how the movie handles disability, and she got a shout-out on Twitter from the Rock himself!

Noah Taylor's duplicitous character may as well have been wearing a sign saying "I AM REALLY A BAD GUY," it was so obvious. On the other hand, I really enjoyed Chin Han as the somewhat mysterious owner of the Pearl. I also really liked Byron Mann as Inspector Wu and Elfina Luk as Sergeant Han, who work the crime scene from a police trailer near the Pearl.

SKYSCRAPER was written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. It was filmed by Robert Elswit. The movie runs a satisfying not-too-long 102 minutes. These days it's always great when a movie ends when it should, rather than going on and on past the two-hour mark.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG-13 for non-bloody action sequences and "brief strong language." I wouldn't recommend it for young children, who would be more likely to take it seriously and be troubled by the peril, but otherwise, it's not particularly graphic in terms of either visuals or language.

Approached in the right frame of mind, SKYSCRAPER is very enjoyable summer fun. I had a good time and look forward to the Rock's next disaster movie. First, though, I'm tremendously looking forward to seeing him costar with Jason Statham in next year's FAST AND FURIOUS spinoff, HOBBS AND SHAW (2019).

13 Years of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

Somehow the years keep rolling quickly by...as of today Laura's Miscellaneous Musings has been in existence for a very lucky 13 years!

What I wrote last year still holds true: "With each passing year I'm more grateful than ever for the wonderful people and experiences which have become part of my life thanks to this blog."

I am most fortunate for what blogging has brought into my life. My deepest appreciation to all my readers for your continued friendship and support.

Previous blog anniversaries: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Living on Velvet (1935) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Kay Francis and George Brent star in LIVING ON VELVET (1935), an enjoyable melodrama available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

This tale of a married couple's rocky relationship was directed by Frank Borzage, whose romantic sensibility is probably part of what makes the movie work, even if it gets a bit silly at times.

Brent has an atypically irresponsible role as Terry Parker, who as the movie begins is the sole survivor of an airplane crash which kills his parents (Samuel S. Hinds and Maude Turner Gordon) and sister (Martha Merrill). Terry is filled with guilt, having been the pilot, and he goes "off the grid" for years, drifting from job to job and engaging in harebrained antics which one suspects might be designed to get himself killed.

Back in the States, Terry visits his friend "Gibraltar" (Warren William) and promptly falls in love with Amy (Francis), the girl Gibraltar loves. Amy also loves Terry, so Gibraltar nobly stands aside and even provides the low-on-funds couple with a house in the country.

Amy marries Terry with her eyes wide open, but she makes the mistake of thinking that eventually her love and support will change him. When Amy realizes that Terry will continue to make poor choices and exclude her from important decisions, she retreats from the marriage, though she still loves him. Terry only begins to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee when he almost gets what he thinks he wants, death in an accident.

Brent so often is the essence of responsibility in his roles that it's rather a surprise watching him wreak havoc at an air show, insult Amy's elderly aunt, and spend thousands of dollars without telling his wife. He's not very likeable for much of the movie, even though his pain is understandable. Honestly, one almost wishes Amy would go back to the loyal Gibraltar, who's always there for her -- though perhaps Gibraltar needs to start to move on with his own life instead of providing so much support for Amy and Terry.

Francis is particularly lovely, doing her usual Francis-type role, suffering nobly in Orry-Kelly gowns. No matter how many times I see Francis in one of these parts, I always enjoy watching her. She had a rather unique place in screen history in the '30s, doing the same thing over and over -- but so enjoyably!

As annoying at Brent's character can be at times, there's also something very sweet and lovely about the Brent-Francis romance. One almost expects "Some Enchanted Evening" to start playing in the background when they first spot each other across the proverbial crowded room. There are some tender and amusing moments between the two which make the "down" moments in their relationship worth working through alongside them. I enjoy watching the movies they made together, and this one is no exception.

LIVING ON VELVET was filmed by Sid Hickox. Although IMDb says it runs 80 minutes, the DVD is 76 minutes long.

The Warner Archive DVD is a good print. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Quick Preview of TCM in October

A few days ago Turner Classic Movies released a preview of the October schedule!

This October TCM will be celebrating the centennial of the birth of Rita Hayworth, the channel's Star of the Month.

I'm really delighted by this news, especially as it means TCM will be showing personal favorites like YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (1942) and TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (1945) in prime time.

This October there's a strong emphasis on creeply-crawly films in honor of Halloween, with multifilm nights featuring names like Karloff, Lugosi, Lee, and famous creatures like the Mummy and Frankenstein.

Treasures From the Disney Vault returns on October 15th with BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971), a fitting choice for to go with the many spooky films airing on TCM in October. Also in the Disney lineup are flight-oriented films such as FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR (1986) and THE LAST FLIGHT OF NOAH'S ARK (1980).

The October Noir Alley titles are ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950), THE HUNTED (1948), and FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949). I'm especially excited about THE HUNTED, one of my all-time favorites.

Saturday morning programming will include Jimmy Wakely "B" Westerns, POPEYE cartoons, and the SAINT series with George Sanders.

Joan Fontaine will receive an eight-film tribute on October 22nd, the 101st anniversary of her birth. Also honored with multifilm tributes in October: Margaret Lockwood, Katharine Hepburn, Rouben Mamoulian, Jean Arthur, Alec Guinness, Ed Begley (Sr.), Baby Peggy Montgomery, and the late editor Anne V. Coats.

Check back here around the end of September for a more in-depth look at the October 2018 schedule. In the meantime, Steve McQueen continues as the July Star of the Month, with Summer Under the Stars coming in August and Dean Martin featured in September.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

It's hard to believe it's nearly been three years since the release of ANT-MAN (2015), one of the very first Marvel movies I ever saw.

When I began watching the Marvel films, I initially saw five in a month's time, and the lighthearted ANT-MAN was definitely key in helping to convert me into a Marvel fan.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) is more of the same, an amusing and enjoyable film which is an excellent follow-up to the original.

In the aftermath of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, is held under house arrest by the U.S. government for breaking the Sokovia Accords.

Scott is days away from being a free man when he has a strange vision of Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the long-missing, presumed dead wife of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), creator of the Ant-Man suit. Scott has not been in recent contact with Hank or Hank's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) due to the terms of his house arrest, but the three are reunited in a quest to find Janet.

Not surprisingly, the always-simmering attraction between Scott and Hope is rekindled as soon as they're brought together again.

The mission becomes challenging due to Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), aka "Ghost," the foster daughter of Hank's old SHIELD colleague Bill (Lawrence Fishburne). Ghost has her own reasons for interfering in the hunt for Janet.

That's pretty much the plot in a nutshell, but a bare bones description doesn't capture how funny and creative the movie is. A giant Hello Kitty Pez dispenser and Scott singing the Partridge Family theme song are just two of the movie's smile-inducing moments, and the final bit at the "drive-in" movie is another great little scene. I agree with Leonard Maltin, who calls the movie "pure fun."

The entire cast brings their "A" game, with Evangeline Lilly getting a chance to develop her character far beyond the somewhat uptight Hope of the first film; her wisecracks to Scott are delightful, and there's a palpable joy to the power she feels having her own suit (with wings and blasters!).

Michael Pena is a hoot as Scott's ex-con business partner, especially in a scene where he's given truth serum, and Randall Park (FRESH OFF THE BOAT) is also funny as the FBI agent charged with keeping tabs on Scott.

Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale return as Scott's ex-wife and her husband. The very functional relationship between the trio of adults parenting Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) is another one of the movie's pleasures. I also appreciated having a love story between a more "mature" couple, as depicted by Douglas and Pfeiffer, front and center.

As always, be sure to stay through the entire end credits sequence; one of the two tag scenes is more important than usual, bringing the characters forward in time to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). Speaking of which, Ant-Man and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) were the only Avengers not present in INFINITY WAR, so it's to be hoped they will play a front-and-center role resolving that movie's unusual ending.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP was directed by Peyton Reed and filmed by Dante Spinotti. It runs a just-right 118 minutes; it's nice to see a Marvel movie clock in under the two-hour mark!

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG-13. It's the usual non-bloody Marvel cartoon violence, and pretty light in that regard. Unless I'm forgetting something, this struck me as more of a family-friendly PG film.

A trailer is here.

I've now seen 19 Marvel movies in three years, give or take a week! And now we must wait for early 2019 and the March release of CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019), followed by the as-yet-untitled second part of INFINITY WAR in May.

Previous Marvel reviews: IRON MAN (2008), IRON MAN 2 (2010), CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011), THOR (2011), THE AVENGERS (2012), IRON MAN 3 (2013), THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013), CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014), AGENT CARTER (2015), ANT-MAN (2015), AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015), CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), DOCTOR STRANGE (2016), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017), SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), BLACK PANTHER (2018), and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018).

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Chaser (1938) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Dennis O'Keefe stars as an ambulance-chasing crooked attorney in THE CHASER (1938), just released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

O'Keefe plays Tom Brandon, who habitually shows up at accident scenes and helps those involved sue "deep pockets" over fake injuries. He's aided and abetted by an alcoholic doctor (Lewis Stone) and the not-too-smart "Floppy Phil" (Nat Pendleton).

Ann Morriss plays Dorothy, a young woman hired by District Attorney Calhoun (Henry O'Neill) to work undercover and expose Brandon's racket. Things get complicated when Dorothy falls for Brandon despite knowing the worst about his character.

This film is a remake of a Lee Tracy-Madge Evans title I've not yet seen, THE NUISANCE (1933). Unfortunately, it's a disappointment. I'm not sure why MGM thought it would be entertaining to watch O'Keefe be a jerk for most of the movie, even if he starts on the path to redemption at the eleventh hour. It's simply not much fun.

As I've written before, I like O'Keefe tremendously; he made a number of very good or excellent films starting in the late '40s. A tribute I wrote a couple years ago may be found here.

Unfortunately, O'Keefe's earliest roles, after graduating from years of extra and bit parts to "B" leads, were unpleasant characters in less-than-scintillating movies such as BURN 'EM UP O'CONNOR (1939) and THE KID FROM TEXAS (1939).

THE CHASER is more of the same; though O'Keefe is supported by a strong cast of character actors, it's a pretty long 75 minutes.

The personable, confident Morriss is the best thing about the film. She married the movie's director, Edwin L. Marin, in 1940; Marin was 20 years her senior but sadly was only 52 when he passed away in 1951. Morriss, who had not acted for a decade at the time of his passing, resumed her career in 1952 and acted until 1960.

Ironically I just rewatched another of Marin's films this weekend which is far better, TALL IN THE SADDLE (1944) starring John Wayne.

THE CHASER was filmed by Charles Lawton Jr.

The print is nothing special, on the soft side but acceptable. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Tonight's Movie: Ninotchka (1939) at UCLA

The new series at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater, celebrating the films of director Ernst Lubitsch, opened last Friday evening.

While I wasn't there for opening night, I was in attendance for last night's wonderful double bill of NINOTCHKA (1939) and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940). I've seen both films before, but I hadn't seen NINOTCHKA in a very long time, and better yet, it was my first time to see either film in a theater.

Author Joseph McBride was on hand to introduce the films and sign his brand-new book, HOW DID LUBITSCH DO IT?, which looks like a wonderful read. My friend Chris Yogerst has just reviewed the book for the Washington Post; be sure to check out the review and then order the book!

Mr. McBride also kindly signed my copy of one of the earliest books in my film library, a book on John Ford which he cowrote with Michael Wilmington. That book played a key role in my falling in love with Ford's movies, and it was wonderful to be able to share that with him and have the book signed.

I've previously reviewed THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, which may be read here. Both films were shown last night in gorgeous 35mm prints; the last part of NINOTCHKA had a bit of a green tinge but otherwise they were absolutely beautiful. Frank Morgan's final snowy scenes in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER were particularly exquisite; the sharpness and depth of the black and white print were a real "wow." If I didn't know otherwise I would have thought it was a nitrate print, it looked that good.

NINOTCHKA was written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch, based on a story by Melchior Lengyel. I think I appreciated the performances and humor much more now than I did when I last saw it many years ago; of course, it's always wonderful to see a comedy with an appreciative audience! Some of the dialogue about the Eiffel Tower was laugh-out-loud funny.

Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), a White Russian in exile in Paris, has learned that Soviets emissaries have arrived in the city trying to sell her jewels to raise funds for the Communist government, and she throws up legal roadblocks to try to get them back.

A Soviet bureaucrat named Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) travels to Paris to find out why three of her comrades (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach) are having so much trouble selling off the jewelry.

The stern Ninotchka is all business, but playboy Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who has been involved with Grand Duchess Swana, chances to meet Ninotchka and is charmed by her. He takes her to the Eiffel Tower and romances her; gradually Ninotchka unbends and begins to enjoy both Leon and capitalism, but their relationship seems doomed when she must head back behind the Iron Curtain.

This is the film which had posters proclaiming "Garbo laughs!" and she does indeed; when she finally breaks up it's quite charming. Douglas is likewise adorable in this as man who genuinely falls for her, even when she only wants to talk about how the Eiffel Tower was constructed. I loved that he was fascinated by Ninotchka at all steps of her "evolution," not simply when she finally unwinds. Douglas is one of my favorite romantic comedy leads, and he was surely never better than he was in this.

The supporting cast is superb; it also includes Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Adams, George Tobias, Mary Forbes, and Gregory Gaye. Look for Peggy Moran as a cigarette girl and Bess Flowers in a nightclub scene.

The movie was filmed in black and white by William Daniels. It runs 110 minutes.

NINOTCHKA is available on DVD in the Greta Garbo Signature Collection, and it's also available on Blu-ray. It's available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

I expect to see more Lubitsch films at UCLA later in July! Additionally, I might even see one at the Egyptian Theatre.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Tonight's Movie: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

It was 114 degrees here yesterday afternoon, but it was lovely inside, with the A/C running and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988) playing on our TV.

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. I loved Miyazaki's THE WIND RISES (2013) and have been wanting to delve into his earlier work. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO was a wonderful start.

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is a gentle tale about two little girls, Satsuki (Norida Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto), who move to the country with their father (Shigeseto Itoi), in order to be closer to their hospitalized mother (Sumi Shimamoto).

The mother is in the hospital for a long stay, one assumes due to tuberculosis. (In this regard the plot has something in common with THE WIND RISES.) The father is a professor who sometimes works from home, and neighboring Granny (Tanie Kitabayashi) and her grandson Kanta (Toshiyuki Amagasa) also look out for the girls, though Kanta doesn't want anyone to know it!

The film drifts into fantasy as first Mei and then Satsuki meet creatures of the neighboring forest including the furry, kindly -- and very large -- Totoro. Only children can see Totoro or his friends, including the amazing Cat Bus.

One is never quite sure if what the girls experience is real or their vivid imaginations, but Totoro and the Cat Bus, in particular, help the girls through a challenging time in their lives. Life may be difficult for the little girls, with their beloved mother dangerously ill, but they are always surrounded by love from their parents and neighbors, including those very special friends unseen by grown-ups.

I wasn't sure where the movie was going at first but as it went on I became increasingly enchanted by the delicate story. The film is positive, charming, and quite creative; the Cat Bus in particularly really wowed me, especially its role in the film's climax.

I also liked the way the story has subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- allusions to classic children's literature such as MARY POPPINS and ALICE IN WONDERLAND, with umbrellas and falling down a hole being among the significant plot points. It doesn't feel as though it's copying those stories, but rather using familiar elements to build on and add to a child's fantasy world.

I was a bit surprised to find myself tearing up at the end of the film's 86 minutes, but I really appreciated its gossamer beauty. The film manages to address big life issues while also being incredibly light on its feet and reassuring. It's a treasure.

I watched the film in the original Japanese, with English subtitles.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated G.

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is available on DVD or in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. I watched it on Blu-ray and look forward to delving into the plentiful extras.

Recommended.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Tonight's Movies: Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), The Bank Job (2008), and Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Our oldest daughter visited for a few days this week, and we spent yesterday enjoying an "action movie" marathon. This was a follow-up to last year's Memorial Day Weekend marathon and our 2016 Independence Day Weekend marathon.

On these "marathon days" our focus has been on catching up with relatively recent action-type movies, and that remained the purpose here. It's a fun change of pace from my typical viewing, though I do occasionally enjoy action movies, such as the FAST AND FURIOUS series, which I was introduced to two summers ago.

Here's a quick roundup of reviews for this weekend's action films:

...DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995) is the third in the series, following DIE HARD (1988), which I watched on Christmas a couple years ago, and DIE HARD 2 (1990), which was part of last year's action marathon.

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE was more of the same, which means it's great fun, with Bruce Willis's John McClane stuck in an endless loop of PERILS OF PAULINE action crises -- this time aided by Samuel L. Jackson, who looks so young I did a double-take at first to make sure it was him.

This time around McClane is back in NYC. It transpires that Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the villain of the very first film, has a brother named Simon (Jeremy Irons), who wants to get back at McClane...while also robbing the Federal Reserve Bank of gold bars.

The pre-9/11 NYC of this film is "so near and yet so far," with pay phones a major plot point. The plentiful action set pieces even include a bit that could have been inspired by the serial DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE (1939), with McClane racing out of a tunnel ahead of a huge wave of water. Anyone who liked the first two DIE HARD movies will like this one. A good time was had by all.

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE was directed by John McTiernan and filmed by Peter Menzies. It runs 126 minutes. Larry Bryggman, Colleen Camp, Anthony Peck, and Nick Wyman costar.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated R for language and violence. I probably heard the "F" word more in this film than I will in a couple of years of real life -- if I don't include the language I see on Twitter, which constantly disappoints.

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant Video.

...Next up was the Oscar-winning CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000), which took home statuettes for Best Foreign Language Film, Cinematography, Art Direction, and Original Score (which includes lovely cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma).

A fantasy of sorts set in 18th-century China, the film features "flying" martial arts experts yet is a more intimate story than I'd expected. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) returns abruptly from his martial arts training, disturbed by a vision. He gives his legendary sword, Green Destiny, to the woman he loves, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who delivers it to Sir Te (Sihung Lung) as a gift.

Almost immediately, the sword is stolen by a mysterious warrior, who turns out to be a young girl, Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang). Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien work to retrieve the sword while also avenging the death of Li Mu Bai's master.

A lengthy flashback depicting Jen's love affair with the bandit Lo (Chen Chang) slows down the film, but on the whole I enjoyed it fairly well until the ending, which one might say was poetic but I honestly found disappointing on multiple levels. The story kind of collapsed for me at that point; too, too sad! The film is worth seeing but I would have ended it differently.

I especially liked Yeoh in this one as a smart, courageous, and physically skilled woman. It's a great role, and she makes the most of it.

This film was directed by Ang Lee (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY) and filmed by Peter Pau. It runs 120 minutes.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG-13. There are some relatively adult love scenes and the ending may disturb younger viewers, but the violence is not particularly graphic, despite the swordplay.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant Video.

...THE BANK JOB (2008) is based on a true story. In the early '70s Martine (Saffron Burrows, Agent Hand on AGENTS OF SHIELD) needs to work off a drug sentence, and M15's Tim Everett (Richard Lintern) has just the plan for her: Retrieve compromising photos of MPs and a member of the British royal family from a safe deposit box and her problems will go away.

To accomplish this, Martine presents a plan to Terry (Jason Statham), who owns a small auto business and needs money in a hurry: The Lloyds Bank vault alarm will be off for a couple of weeks, and they can tunnel in from the out-of-business luggage store next door. (Shades of LARCENY, INC.!) The safe deposit boxes hold an untold fortune in cash and jewels.

Terry rounds up a gang of experts and off they go. The movie also calls to mind RIFIFI (1955), as while the heist itself goes fine, things start to unravel in the aftermath. Terry and his team have more than they bargained for thanks to lifting compromising material involving a Black Panther type criminal (Peter De Jersey) and a pornographer (David Suchet).

I had mixed feelings about this one. I loved Jason Statham, the '70s London setting (orange, brown, and green seem to have been as popular there as they were in the U.S. back then), and the "based on a true story" aspect. There's even an appearance by Lord Mountbatten (Christopher Owen)! I also loved the location filming, including Paddington Station and the Chicken Inn next to the bank, and the echoes of other classic heist films; the "stealing dynamite" theme also echoes CHARLEY VARRICK (1973).

On the other hand, I had trouble with it being a very edgy "R," which ironically imitates actual '70s movies like FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975). (Both films have bordello scenes I could have done without.) The violence was also pretty hard-edged; I skipped past one late scene with a murder which was telegraphed far in advance. If about 10 minutes of R-rated material had been shed I would liked the film more than I did, as the "good stuff" is quite good.

Postscript: One of the great details shared at the end of the film is that after the real-life heist 100 people refused to identify the contents of their safe deposit boxes!

THE BANK JOB was directed by Roger Donaldson and filmed by Michael Coulter. It runs 111 minutes.

Parental Advisory: This is a very hard R which is definitely not for kids and maybe not for some adults (grin).

THE BANK JOB is available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video.

...After THE BANK JOB we decided to wrap up our viewing of the DIE HARD series with LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007). (I say this knowing there's a fifth film, but I'm advised to ignore it!) LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is more of the same, as Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) and his girlfriend Mai Linh (Maggie Q) take over critical government computer systems based in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately the location filming was a big "fail" in this; for instance, Lucy McClane (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is said to be attending Rutgers University, but it was actually filmed at the University of Southern California. (As a matter of fact, my daughter was a student there when the movie was filmed on campus!) Some of the action sequences are clearly filmed on Los Angeles freeways; they try their best to hide Downtown L.A. in the framing of the shots, but anyone who lives here will recognize the buildings.

Otherwise, the movie was the usual fun, as McClane and a young hacker named Matt (Justin Long) try to stop a computer-generated Armageddon of sorts. I had to laugh wondering if McClane ever wonders why everything happens to him, and there's actually a conversation with Matt about McClane being "that guy" who ends up doing what must be done...over and over and over again.

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD was directed by Len Wiseman and filmed by Simon Duggan. It runs 128 minutes.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG-13 for language and violence. The language is way, way toned down from DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, so that was appreciated.

The violence is mostly non-graphic but I did find it disturbing how little any of the bad guys, especially Mai Linh, cared about killing people. Her attitude is to shoot someone who's in your way and get on with what you want to do.

I was also musing how none of the bad guys, in this and many other films, including DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, stop to think that if the people they're working with are willing to kill with abandon, that they might get killed as well when they're no longer of any value.

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant Video.

This was a very enjoyable movie day! Even with my reservations, I found each of the films worth seeing, and I especially enjoyed seeing more of the DIE HARD series.

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