Saturday, November 18, 2017

Book Review: Music in Disney's Animated Features

I try to stay apprised of the latest Disney history books, but I only learned of an important new title very recently.

That book is James Bohn's MUSIC IN DISNEY'S ANIMATED FEATURES: SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS TO THE JUNGLE BOOK, published earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi.

I love all things Disney, but it's the music which I love the best. Heard in both movies and theme parks, Disney music can always be relied on to spur what my family calls "Disney moments" -- tearing up with happiness during a Disney experience. Who isn't immediately buoyed by happy nostalgia when hearing songs such as "When You Wish Upon a Star," "Whistle While You Work," or "You Can Fly!"?

As respected Disney historian Jeff Kurtti writes in his foreword, Disney film music "has been almost ritually passed along to succeeding generations, along with rich cultural memories and memorable entertainment experiences, to gain an even deeper meaning in the ensuing decades."

MUSIC IN DISNEY'S ANIMATED FEATURES is thus the Disney book I never knew I wanted. I consider myself knowledgeable about the history of Disney cartoons, but I learned a great deal from this deep dive into the music, which I'm certain will also enhance my appreciation on future viewings.

After introductory chapters on Disney's earliest use of music, in Mickey Mouse cartoons and the Silly Symphonies," the book covers Disney's animated features during the years Disney was alive; while it skips over FANTASIA (1940) and the "package" features, it explores in depth the music of SNOW WHITE (1937), PINOCCHIO (1940), DUMBO (1941), BAMBI (1942), CINDERELLA (1950), and many more.

Bohn points out that while Walt Disney wasn't a musician, he knew what his films needed musically and had the ability to fill his creative team with just the right people. In his deeply researched, very detailed book Bohn discusses everything from the creative process -- including the interesting fact that Disney's earlier cartoons were scored first and animated to fit the music -- to the musical styles and the way the music is utilized at dramatic points in each film, along with biographies of the composers, notes on critical reception of the films, and mentions of signficant later recordings of the songs.

Although the book contains a great deal of information in relatively small print, it's presented in a readable, almost conversational style; chapters are broken up with subheadings, with topics such as composer biographies interspersed at relevant points. For instance, a couple pages into the chapter on SNOW WHITE there's a detour to a four-page biography of composer Frank Churchill, before returning to SNOW WHITE proper. The subheadings made it easy to track as the author explored each film from a variety of angles, and I felt it also made it easier to dip in and out of the book as time permitted, reading it in small sections.

As a side note, it seemed a bit unusual that pretty much every person mentioned in the book had their name followed by their birth and death dates -- even, for example, the actors who attended the SNOW WHITE premiere -- but at the same time I appreciated the inclusion as I often end up looking up dates on my own.

The hardcover edition of MUSIC IN DISNEY'S ANIMATED FEATURES is 294 pages long, including end notes, bibliography, index, and an extensive 38-page appendix listing the composer of every music cue in the animated films covered in the book, along with timing and other data.

The book is illustrated with excerpts from musical scores and a few black and white photographs. I found the use of the musical illustrations very interesting; along with simple lines of music here and there, to illustrate points, there's also a great photo of a sheet of Ken Darby's original notes for "The Mad Tea Party" in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951). All illustrations are printed directly on the book's non-glossy pages; the reproduction quality is good.

MUSIC IN DISNEY'S ANIMATED FEATURES is must reading for those who love Disney or film music in general. Highly recommended.

Thanks to James Bohn and the University Press of Mississippi for providing a review copy of this book.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Tonight's Movie: The Law in Her Hands (1936) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Everyone's favorite Warner Bros. sidekick, Glenda Farrell, is featured in a brand-new Glenda Farrell Triple Feature collection, available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

THE LAW IN HER HANDS (1936) is featured in the set along with HERE COMES CARTER (1936) and DANCE CHARLIE DANCE (1937). These three very short films share a single one-sided disc, along with the trailer for each movie. The latter two films will be reviewed here at a future date.

In THE LAW IN HER HANDS Farrell and Margaret Lindsay play Dot and Mary, newly minted attorneys in the state of New York. They open a law firm, but the going is tough.

Assistant District Attorney Bob Mitchell (Dick Purcell) takes a shine to Mary and tries to persuade her to give up her floundering career for marriage. Mary agrees to marry Bob, but first she wants a year to prove to herself that she's a good attorney who can have a successful career.

Enter genteel mobster Frank "Legs" Gordon (Lyle Talbot). After initially resisting representing Gordon, Mary becomes desperate for work, so she takes his retainer. Soon the law firm moves to a much nicer building, Mary and Dot upgrade their wardrobes, Mary has a maid (Bernice Pilot), and all is well...until Gordon wants Mary to get involved with some of his more nefarious dealings...and Assistant D.A. Mitchell gets hurt.

This 58-minute film moves at a breakneck pace, and I found it fun and entertaining. There's no doubt that the assumptions about marriage and a woman's career not mixing, or the "proper" role for a woman, will cause some modern viewers to wince -- yet taking a look at 1936 attitudes on such topics is part of the value of a film like this.

Lindsay and Farrell are always entertaining, and that's the case here; Lindsay has the lead role, but Farrell has plenty of screen time. Talbot is appropriately slimy, and Purcell is okay as a smiling nice guy, but it's the ladies who make the movie worth the watch.

Also in the cast: Eddie Acuff, Al Shean, Addison Richards, Joseph Crehan, Milton Kibbee, and Howard C. Hickman.

THE LAW IN HER HANDS was directed by William Clemens and filmed by Sid Hickox. Costume designs were by the great Orry-Kelly.

The Warner Archive print of THE LAW IN HER HANDS is excellent. The disc includes the trailer.

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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Alan Ladd and Edward G. Robinson star in HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955), just released on DVD and Blu-ray for the very first time by the Warner Archive.

Ladd, who also produced, plays Steve Rollins, an ex-cop freed after five years in San Quentin, framed for a crime he didn't commit.

Steve heads home to San Francisco, determined to get to the bottom of the setup, and all roads lead to the very violent new wharf boss Vic Amato (Robinson).

A number of characters circle around this main storyline: Steve's nightclub singer wife Marcia (Joanne Dru), who can't live down having had an ill-fated romance with another man three years into Steve's stint in prison; Steve's former partner Dan (William Demarest), who's always got his back; Amato's hit man Joe (Paul Stewart), a man scarred physically and mentally, who's in love with a former movie star (Fay Wray); and Detective Connors (Peter Hansen), a crooked cop who does Amato's bidding.

Nice surprises pop up, too: That's Jayne Mansfield dancing with Vic's ill-fated nephew Mario (Perry Lopez), and one Rodney Taylor makes a charismatic impression as another Amato thug. I might have let out a pleased yelp when his face popped up! He's only got a few minutes onscreen but he's terrific.

The plot is fairly familiar, and certain aspects which should tug at our emotions, like the broken-hearted tension simmering between Steve and Marcia, are somewhat perfunctory, rather than anything deeply romantic. Ladd typically played button-down types, with emotions just beneath the surface, and that's the type of character he plays here, but stronger character shadings would have been welcome.

Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine I wouldn't enjoy an Alan Ladd movie, as he's a great favorite of mine, and this one worked for me as a solid, well-paced crime film filled with familiar faces. I enjoyed it quite well and would definitely watch it again.

Robinson is extremely slimy in this one, playing a man who doesn't think twice about knocking off his own relatives. In some respects the movie isn't far removed from the type of gangster films he made at Warner Bros. in the '30s; Ladd's role could have been played by Cagney or Bogart.

Joanne Dru is elegantly gowned as she sings standards in a very attractive nightclub. This is perhaps a good spot to mention the film has excellent set design, including the Early American decor of Dru's apartment and the red-tiled bathroom where Ladd persuades someone to spill some info.

The most interesting, nuanced performances are by Stewart and Wray. Stewart, traumatized by time spent on Death Row, thinks he's found happiness in the person of Kay (Wray), but it's not likely anyone who works for Amato and goes around killing people for no good reason is going to have a happy ending.

Peter Hansen, who died this year at the age of 95, had worked with Ladd in his very first film, BRANDED (1950). As a producer Ladd also put Hansen in DRUM BEAT (1954), A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956), and THE DEEP SIX (1958).

HELL ON FRISCO BAY was directed by Frank Tuttle. It runs 98 minutes. The supporting cast includes Anthony Caruso, Mae Marsh, Renata Vanni, Tina Carver, George J. Lewis, Stanley Adams, Willis Bouchey, Nestor Paiva, and Herb Vigran.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY is helped considerably by attractive shooting on location in San Francisco by John F. Seitz. Unfortunately there are also a number of obvious process shots and back projections, but I guess you can't have it all; the location scenes which are there lend quite a bit of atmosphere.

With the exception of some shots with too much grain, the Warner Archive Blu-ray nicely shows off this film's attractive CinemaScope and WarnerColor filming. It should please Ladd fans -- I'm certainly one -- and those who enjoy crime films.

The lone extra is the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Tonight's Movie: The Man Who Died Twice (1958) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

Rod Cameron stars in THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE (1958), which will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber on November 14th.

THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE is a Ventura Pictures production released by Republic Pictures in the studio's waning days. It marked the final film appearance of Vera Ralston, wife of studio head Herbert Yates.

The movie gets off to a slam-bang start with a fiery car wreck followed by a deadly scuffle and shooting on an apartment balcony. The man who died in the wreck was nightclub owner T.J. Brennon (Don Megowan), whose estranged brother Bill (Cameron) arrives in town just after T.J.'s death. Bill had unexpectedly received a telegram from T.J. saying he was in trouble and needed help.

As for the balcony death, that scene is witnessed by T.J.'s widow Lynn (Ralston), who is so shocked by what she sees that she's hospitalized, unable to remember it all.

Bit by bit Bill and the cops (including Louis Jean Heydt and John Maxwell) piece together T.J.'s sordid past, which ties in with what Lynn witnessed on the balcony.

Meanwhile, a pair of out of town mob hitmen (Gerald Milton and Richard Karlan) arrive intent on collecting a large debt from T.J.'s widow...and T.J.'s bartender (Mike Mazurki) factors into things too; he's got an unhealthy obsession with Lynn and drug addicts pestering him for their latest hit.

THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE is what some of us call "movie comfort food," if you can give a film filled with murders and drugs that term! For me it seems like the equivalent of "cozy mysteries," and this one had me at "Louis Jean Heydt as a police captain." I love when Heydt has a nice big supporting role, and he's got plenty of screen time in this one.

Rod Cameron's reassuring presence makes him just right as the brother seeking answers. Milton and Karlan make like a cut-rate Conrad and McGraw from THE KILLERS (1946), but they're memorable on their own terms, especially in their unkindness to cats and old ladies.

The cast also includes Paul Picerni, Bob Anderson, Don Haggerty, Jesslyn Fax, and Luana Anders, playing a strung-out young drug addict.

The movie was directed by Joseph Kane, best known for his "B" Westerns, from a script by Richard C. Sarafian. It runs a brisk 70 minutes.

The excellent Kino Lorber Blu-ray print shows off Jack Marta's widescreen black and white Naturama filming. There's nothing especially flashy about Marta's style here but it's just right for this low-budget but satisfying crime film. The ability to watch a film like this in such terrific condition adds greatly to the enjoyment.

Extras consist of a trailer gallery for five film noir titles and a commentary track by Toby Roan. I haven't heard the track yet -- I plan to do that over lunch in the next day or two -- but Toby's tracks are always excellent and I have no doubt this will be of the same caliber.

Fans of "B" noir and crime films will want to get this one. Here's hoping Kino Lorber has more fun releases like this coming in the future!

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Today at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure: Christmastime Arrives!

This weekend the Disneyland kicked off its annual holiday season, which runs through January 7th.


It was a gray morning in Southern California but Disneyland was nonetheless filled with festive Christmas cheer! A few shots at Town Square:




And a bit of the decor in New Orleans Square:


This year's Starbucks ceramic Christmas cup:


This year's holiday park maps:


Across the way at Disney California Adventure it's the second annual Festival of Holidays, with many special performers and seasonal food booths. (Photos from last year may be found here and here.)




The Carthay Circle Theatre:


I expect to return to both parks soon! We'll be making our annual Thanksgiving Eve visit, and I'll also be visiting to collect a fresh-made candy cane and sample some of the goodies at the Festive Foods Marketplace!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Sorority House (1939) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

SORORITY HOUSE (1939) is a terrific little RKO "B" film recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

A radiant Anne Shirley plays Alice Fisher, daughter of a small-town grocer (J.M. Kerrigan). Alice unexpectedly is able to accomplish her dream of going to Talbot College, and she's immediately off to campus.

Alice loves everything about college: Her roommates Dotty (Barbara Read) and Merle (Adele Pearce, aka Pamela Blake); handsome medical student Bill (James Ellison); and the entire sorority scene. (She does also mention enjoying learning at one point, though we never see her in class!)

Alice and Merle both long to join a sorority, although the fact that sophomore Dotty was rejected the previous year stands as a caution to their aspirations -- especially given that Dotty might be the nicest, most sensible person on campus.

Alice begins to wake up to the problems of sororities when she is briefly embarrassed to introduce her father to the elites attending a sorority party. By later than night, when sorority bids go out, she's having serious second thoughts about joining a club which excludes others.

I first reviewed this film in 2010, and I had a good time returning to it after getting to know the entire cast better in the ensuing seven years. I tend to enjoy "college" films, and exclusive sororities in particular can raise thorny questions. SORORITY HOUSE efficiently tackles the issues; at just 64 minutes long, it also has the advantage of making its points while not having time to become overly bogged down with melodramatic sturm und drang.

I also like a later film about sororities, TAKE CARE OF MY LITTLE GIRL (1951), but I admire what SORORITY HOUSE accomplishes in just 2/3 of the later film's running time.

Shirley was a very appealing actress, and I really enjoy her sincere appreciation of all her new experiences in this film. Her romance with the straight arrow Ellison is one of the nicest things about the movie.

Barbara Read (THREE SMART GIRLS, CORONER CREEK) was a special actress I wish had had more and better parts. Her distinctive presence elevates the film; one senses that while the sororities might have chosen to leave her Dotty out of their groups, the self-possessed young woman with lovely dark braids will go far in life.

SORORITY HOUSE was made by a crack team of pros including director John Farrow, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

There's a fairly big "blip" in the picture towards the end of the movie, but for the most part this is a good-looking print with strong sound. There are no extras on the disc.

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.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Tonight's Movie: S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939) - An Olive Films DVD Review

S.O.S. TIDAL WAVE (1939) is a Republic Pictures "B" rarity released last week on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films.

I missed the movie when it was shown in 35mm last spring in the UCLA Festival of Preservation, so I was glad to have the chance to catch it now via Olive's DVD.

The story of this 62-minute film centers around newly minted TV star Jeff Shannon (Ralph Byrd). Shannon is a newsman who travels all over his Eastern city covering stories with his cameraman Peaches (Frank Jenks), and his broadcasts have built up quite a following.

Shannon wants to bust open the story on political corruption in his town, but he backs off when his wife (Kay Sutton, LAWLESS VALLEY) and son (Mickey Kuhn, Beau of GONE WITH THE WIND) are threatened. However, another TV star, ventriloquist "Uncle Dan" Carter (George Barbier), is determined to see justice done.

This is an oddball little film -- a ventriloquist fighting the political machine? -- and it's also frankly fairly dry for much of the going, with the main interest for a modern audience being a look at the early use of television. With the exception of a typically animated Frank Jenks, the characters are fairly flat, if not downright silly at times; Uncle Dan may be noble, but he's more of a dummy than his wooden doll.

The finale, however, is worth waiting for, when the bad guys lure everyone in town away from voting with a fake broadcast about a tidal wave hitting New York City. The broadcast uses footage from the disaster film DELUGE (1933) to mesmerize everyone into watching the developing story that NYC is underwater. (Incidentally, I have the Kino Lorber release of DELUGE in my "to watch" stack!) This sequence is quite amusing, including Shannon's dawning realization that the story is "fake news" (couldn't resist), and for me it made the movie worthwhile.

It's interesting to contemplate that although this is a movie about television, much of the plot was clearly inspired by radio. Uncle Dan and his ever-present sidekick are an obvious nod to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who themselves would also appear in movies; and the fake TV broadcast was, of course, inspired by the 1938 radio broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS.

Leading man Ralph Byrd was the star of DICK TRACY serials and had also starred in the similarly titled serial SOS COAST GUARD (1937). (As an aside, I really enjoyed him in the 1948 crime film STAGE STRUCK.) Byrd makes a smooth TV guy, although his refusal to explain to his wife and friend why he's reticent to go up against the political machine doesn't make much sense; the fellow crying into his beer midway through the movie seems far removed from the man we initially met. He bounces back later, but let's just say this script and character development don't have much in common with each other. The fun is in seeing what folks in 1939 thought about TV and the media's ability to incite mass panic.

S.O.S. TIDAL WAVE was directed by John H. Auer. It was filmed in black and white by Jack Marta. The supporting cast includes Marc Lawrence (good as a slimy bad guy), Dorothy Lee, and Don "Red" Barry. Supposedly George Montgomery and Robert J. Wilke have bit parts but I didn't spot them.

This isn't really a very good film, but it's watchable and as noted above it has points of interest and some historical/cultural value. Kudos to Olive for making it available in this good-looking print, which has excellent sound. There are no extras.

Thanks to Olive Films for providing a review copy of this DVD.

Tonight's Movie: No More Ladies (1935) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, and Franchot Tone star in the romantic comedy NO MORE LADIES (1935), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Marcia (Crawford) and Sherry (Montgomery) wed, but despite his deep love for Marcia, former playboy Sherry just can't seem to stop himself from spending time with other women.

Marcia wants to save their marriage and decides to use Jim (Tone) to make Sherry jealous. That's pretty much all there is to the plot of this 80-minute film, which sounds like a tear-jerking soap opera but is instead handled with more laughs than tears.

I first saw this film in 2008, and I think I enjoyed my return visit even more. For the viewer who wants to get away from it all, there can't be a more wonderful escape than dropping into this mid-'30s Art Deco MGM land. Everyone looks great, with the ladies in gowns by Adrian, and they all say witty things thanks to a screenplay cowritten by Donald Ogden Stewart, who later adapted Philip Barry's THE PHILADELPHIA STORY to the screen.

Did the wealthy really ever live as glamorously as they did at MGM? For some Depression-era audiences, the shelves of Crawford's fully stocked refrigerator -- doors left open for an extended period of gaping from the audience -- might have been as beautiful as any of the fancy gowns.

This was one of half a dozen films Crawford and Montgomery made together, and they were always an excellent team with strong chemistry. (We're all still waiting...and waiting...for their terrific LETTY LYNTON to surface from the depths of the grey market and finally be legally available.) I feel Crawford was at her loveliest and most appealing in the mid to late '30s, and she's very enjoyable here as the woman determined to teach her man a lesson and keep him for her own.

Montgomery is one of my favorite actors, immensely attractive and appealing even when playing an immature character, and Tone isn't far behind him in terms of screen appeal. Tone would marry Crawford in late 1935.

Montgomery and Tone, incidentally, would later team with Janet Gaynor in the very enjoyable THREE LOVES HAS NANCY (1938).

In addition to the lead actors, the film is populated with a superb supporting cast including Edna May Oliver, Reginald Denny, Charlie Ruggles, Gail Patrick, Arthur Treacher, Joan Fontaine, and Charles Coleman. Casts just don't come any better; there's great pleasure simply being "in the room" with them.

The film was directed by Edward H. Griffith and an uncredited George Cukor, who took over when Griffith became ill. It was filmed by Oliver T. Marsh.

I enjoyed discovering much of Montgomery's work on TCM a decade or so ago and am enjoying circling back to it thanks to the Warner Archive. NO MORE LADIES was a very early Warner Archive release, back in 2010, but since the Warner Archive's films are all manufactured on demand, older titles remain just as easily available as the latest releases.

Those who are new to Montgomery might also want check out the Archive's eight-film Robert Montgomery Collection, which has been on my shelves for several years now, as well as their single-title Montgomery releases, many of which have been previously reviewed here.

The NO MORE LADIES print is a bit soft and worn, but the sound is fine and it's still a very enjoyable watch, even if the print isn't as crisp as one might wish. The disc includes the trailer.

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.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Gold Star (2017)

GOLD STAR (2017) is a loosely autobiographical independent film written and directed by lead actress Victoria Negri.

The movie notably features the final performance of Robert Vaughn, who passed away on November 11, 2016.

Negri plays Vicki, a young woman leading a frankly aimless life. A former music student, she has no career aspirations, marking time working the graveyard shift at an Anytime Fitness gym; meanwhile her relationship with her boyfriend (Max Rhyser) is increasingly revealed to be unhealthy.

Vicki's life becomes more complicated and conflicted when her father Carmine (Vaughn) suffers a stroke which leaves him unable to walk or speak. Vicki's mother Deanne (Catherine Curtin) lovingly cares for her much-older husband, but she needs to return to work to help pay the bills. She naturally turns to the not-very-busy Vicki for help caring for Carmine.

Vicki is at first distant from her father, awkward and at a loss to meet his needs, but she very slowly draws closer to him; along the way she learns compassion and begins to treat others with kindness, including her older half sister Maria (Anna Garduno). She also begins to confront her feelings that she's disappointed her father.

I found it interesting that this is the second film I've seen this year, along with THE BIG SICK (2017), in which a real-life medical crisis provided the inspiration for a movie written by its lead actor. GOLD STAR is an absorbing film filled with recognizable moments and imperfect, relatable people coping with very challenging issues.

Negri is brave in playing an interesting yet fairly unlikeable and unhappy young woman for much of the film. She's self-centered, with anger issues threatening to bubble and come to the surface at any moment, and she tends to hold others emotionally at bay; she has a more affectionate relationship with her mother than others, but even there they have some conflict and disagreement. Vicki is the dutiful daughter on the surface, but she clearly resents the demands on her time and does as little as she can get away with. With other people in her life, Vicki can be curt to the point of rudeness.

Oh so slowly Vicki begins to turn things around, including ending a toxic relationship with her boyfriend, who's only interested in one thing from her, and it's not talking. On another front, while Vicki had initially tended to use her new friend Chris (Jacob Heimer) for car rides or to help bridge the awkward hours alone with her father, eventually she shows more concern for what Chris is going through in his own life and tries to show him support.

Vicki also begins to build bridges with her sister, who has long-simmering resentment towards the "second family" living in her childhood home. As the film ends there is hope that Vicki has begun to put her life on track toward a more mature and positive future.

I thought it rather daring to center the film around someone with so many issues, but it works; I remained interested in what was going on behind Vicki's impassive face and took heart in the breakthroughs she began to make as the movie came to an end.

In addition to Negri's fine performance there is excellent work by Curtin as the devoted wife, exhausted and in need of emotional support, but determined to do the best for her husband; Garduno as the older daughter who is simultaneously annoying and sympathetic, desperate to hang on to mementoes of her past life with her father; and Heimer as the good-natured young man Vicki first meets at the hospital.

Best of all is Vaughn, who is completely and totally real as the father, communicating a world of emotions in a wordless performance. GOLD STAR was a touching and impressive cap to Vaughn's long career.

While it may sound like a somber watch, the film's serious subject matter is leavened by brief moments of humor. It's also well paced and doesn't wear out its welcome; indeed, I was a bit surprised it came to an end at the 90-minute point.

The photography by Saro Varjabedian is beautiful, capturing lovely Connecticut landscapes; at times it also dares to be different, such as the sun-streaked shots of Vicki and Chris through his car's front windshield.

Parental Advisory: GOLD STAR does not appear to be rated but has a couple of fairly explicit "R" rated type scenes which are not meant for children. One unnecessary scene was frankly a bit much for me in an otherwise very worthwhile film; you'll know it when you see it.

In recent months GOLD STAR has been playing on the festival circuit. It will be available to stream on Amazon beginning November 10th.

In Southern California, GOLD STAR will screen theatrically at the North Hollywood Laemmle Theatre on November 20th.

In Boston, my friend Raquel Stecher will be hosting a screening with Victoria Negri and composer Ben Levin at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington on November 27th. Raquel reviewed the movie at her blog late last year; she's put several good new films and documentaries on my radar screen in the past couple years, and this is one of them. I especially appreciate her help connecting me with Victoria Negri.

The GOLD STAR trailer is available at the Hollywood Reporter. Check out the film's website for additional information.

Thanks to Victoria Negri for providing access to an online screener of this film for review.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

I feel like a bit of a broken record as I begin writing my 17th Marvel review since July 2015, but Marvel Studios has yet another winner with THOR: RAGNAROK (2017).

I admit I was more than a little dubious about this new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), based on the trailers. The appeal of the first two THOR movies for me has centered on things like the "fish out of water" humor of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on earth (aka Midgard), his romance with the lovely scientist Jane (Natalie Portman), and the visuals of Thor's home realm of Asgard, with its beautiful Bifrost rainbow bridge. The new THOR movie, as seen in the trailers, was...not that. The God of Thunder even got a haircut!

'Tis true there is no Jane in this film, apparently due in part to Portman's lack of interest in continuing in the series. Thor's only on earth for a couple of minutes in this one -- but since it's a visit with a favorite character, introduced to the MCU in the last year, it was entirely delightful. And as for Asgard...nope, it's not in good shape this time around. Additionally, much time is spent on an ugly planet which seems to be an intergalactic garbage dump.

All that said, I was pleased to discover none of the changes really mattered, because THOR: RAGNAROK was a rollicking good time. Thor finds himself fighting for survival on two fronts: as a prisoner on a planet where he's forced to participate in a gladiator contest...and on Asgard, where long-lost sibling Hela (Cate Blanchett), Goddess of Death, is determined to succeed their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to the throne. There's a great deal of enjoyable humor to offset watching Thor deal with these dual crises.

In the gladiator contest Thor is delighted to discover his opponent is none other than his fellow Avenger, the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), though he's got to figure out a way to calm the "Big Guy" down and turn him back into a normal human. Thor also meets a woman (Tessa Thompson of CREED) who's a bounty hunter of sorts, but she proves to have both hidden talents and an Asgardian connection.

Best of all, Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), God of Mischief, is back and in fine form. One of the best characters in the entire MCU, the fun of Hiddleston's conflicted Loki is that no one ever knows which direction he'll go, and he's the rare villain who also manages to evoke laughter and sympathy. Like Jason Statham in the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, when Hiddleston is bad, he's good, and when he's good, he's even better. Thor and Loki joining forces against the hellacious Hela was one of the year's real pleasures at the movies for me.

Also back in a nice role is Idris Elba as Heimdall, guard of the Bifrost Bridge, who tries to protect the citizens of Asgard from Hela in Thor's absence. Thor's loyal friends, the Warriors Three (Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, and Ray Stevenson), also make a brief appearance. Missing was Jaimie Alexander as Lady Sif, who was filming her TV series at the time of production.

Everyone seems to be having a great time, including Blanchett. My only real disappointment was the number (two) and quality of the end credits tags, which weren't as funny or tantalizing as they often are.

THOR: RAGNAROK also stars Jeff Goldblum and Karl Urban. There are also some interesting cameos when Thor returns to Asgard and witnesses a stage production about his family history, including an unexpected appearance by an "A" list star.

The movie was directed by Taika Waititi and filmed by Javier Aguirresarobe.

Parental Advisory: THOR: RAGNAROK is rated PG-13 for intense sequences and "brief suggestive material."  I can't recall at this point what that latter issue might have been.

THOR: RAGNAROK opened to strong reviews; a sample is Mick LaSalle writing the film "has a lot of human appeal and a spirit of silliness that it never loses and yet always carefully manages, so that the silliness remains an ongoing source of delight without ever undercutting the impact of the action." At USA Today Brian Truitt calls it "by far the best" of the three THOR movies, while also joking "Who figured that the goofiest Marvel superhero movie would be the one that stars the thunder god instead of the talking raccoon?" The headline for Michael O'Sullivan's Washington Post review says the film is "a delicious blend of meaty action and sublime silliness."

I'm not sure how Marvel Studios manages to produce such consistently entertaining films, especially given how many there have been over the past decade, but it's a treat to sit down to a new Marvel film and know that I'm going to enjoy it.

Coming to the MCU next year: BLACK PANTHER (2018), AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018).

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), and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

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