Thursday, June 23, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery (2015)

I had planned to spend this evening seeing GIANT (1956) at the Academy, but a last-minute complication kept me at home.

Instead I enjoyed watching Hallmark's MURDER, SHE BAKED: A CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE MYSTERY (2015), starring Alison Sweeney.

MURDER, SHE BAKED initially ran on Hallmark's Movies & Mysteries Channel. In some quarters there are folks who like to put down Hallmark films, which are generally positive and family friendly, as lightweight or sugary. The truth is that, just like any other movies, Hallmark quality is varied, from not so good to solid entertainment to outstanding.

MURDER, SHE BAKED was recommended to me by family members who felt it compared very well with the novel by Joanne Fluke. I found it quite engaging, and I suspect that my fellow classic film fans would enjoy a well-made "cozy" mystery film series such as this one.

In fact, the concept of mystery movies series, which has been revived by Hallmark over the past year, calls to mind favorites series of old such as The Falcon, The Saint, Boston Blackie, or Michael Shayne. Other movie series currently airing on the network include the Garage Sale Mysteries (Lori Loughlin), Aurora Teagarden Mysteries (Candace Cameron Bure), Flower Shop Mysteries (Brooke Shields, with Beau Bridges as her dad), and the Gourmet Detective (Dylan Neal and Brooke Burns).

Sweeney, known to soaps fans as Sami on DAYS OF OUR LIVES, plays Hannah Swensen. Hannah owns a bakery & cafe in the small town of Lake Eden, Minnesota.

Hannah gets the shock of her life when her milkman (Ron Cermak), a longtime friend, is murdered behind her shop. Hannah's cafe is naturally a way station for town gossip and bits of news, and she begins to research the case on her own, which doesn't thrill Bill, her policeman brother-in-law (Toby Levins), or Mike (Cameron Mathison), a widowed big city detective sent to help Lake Eden with the case.

Along with working on the mystery, Hannah tentatively begins to develop a friendly relationship with Mike (at left in photo), and she also begins dating Norman (Gabriel Hogan, at right in photo), a kind dentist who's new in town.

Sweeney, who also served as a producer, makes Hannah likeable and real, whether she's talking to her cat or smoothing out a poor introduction to Mike. I particularly enjoyed her bantering relationship with Mike (Mathison), which successfully matches wary edginess with friendly interest.

Sweeney and Mathison are surrounded by a good supporting cast, which also includes Barbara Niven and Lisa Durupt as Hannah's mother and sister.

The movie is also a visual delight, from the scenes around Lake Eden (filmed in British Columbia) to the colors of Hannah's bakery boxes -- and of course, the beautiful cookies on display in her shop.

MURDER, SHE BAKED: A CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE MYSTERY was directed by Mark Fluke and filmed by Adam Sliwinski. Minus commercials, the film runs approximately 85 minutes.

MURDER, SHE BAKED: A CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE MYSTERY will be released on DVD on July 5, 2016.

Numerous books have been published in Fluke's series, and to date there are three more TV films in the MURDER, SHE BAKED series, which I'm looking forward to watching: A PLUM PUDDING MYSTERY (2015), A PEACH COBBLER MYSTERY (2016), and A DEADLY RECIPE (2016).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tonight's Movies: Prairie Law (1940) and Stage to Chino (1940) - Warner Archive DVD Reviews

It's been a busy few days, which made it the perfect time to relax with more films from the Warner Archive George O'Brien Western Collection.

This time around I watched two more of O'Brien's films with Virginia Vale, PRAIRIE LAW (1940) and STAGE TO CHINO (1940). I'd seen this pair in the past, and like most of O'Brien's Westerns, they hold up very well on further acquaintance.

PRAIRIE LAW is an engaging, well-scripted tale in which O'Brien plays Brill Austin, who helps a bunch of homesteaders who have been tricked into buying land without access to water. One of the settlers is lovely Priscilla (Vale), and the pair are soon bantering and flirting in between dealing with water rights, cattle rustlers, and a fraudulent election to move the county seat.

I previously reviewed this one in 2014, and this time around I liked it just as much, if not more, than I did then. O'Brien and Vale are always fun to watch, and there's some genuinely amusing dialogue. One of my favorite bits involves a jury simultaneously conducting deliberations and participating in a shootout!

An added plus is that, as was often the case in these films, George O'Brien handled his own stunts in an extended fight sequence, including a backwards somersault and flipping someone over his shoulder.

The excellent cast includes Slim Whitaker, J. Farrell MacDonald, Dick Hogan, Cy Kendall, Paul Everton, Lloyd Ingraham Henry Hall, Monte Montague, and Hank Worden. Look for a young Darryl Hickman as a homesteader's son.

PRAIRIE LAW was directed by David Howard. It was filmed in black and white by J. Roy Hunt and the uncredited Harry J. Wild. The running time is 59 minutes.

While in PRAIRIE LAW Vale's character mostly roots from the sidelines, she has a strong role in STAGE TO CHINO as Caroline McKay, the spunky owner of a stage line. Caroline is trying to secure a mail contract, but she's being plotted against by her own uncle (Carl Stockdale) and by Dude Elliott (Roy Barcroft), who owns much of the town.

O'Brien plays Dan Clark, an undercover postal inspector, who's aided by a traveling salesman (Hobart Cavanaugh).

As I mentioned in my 2015 review, STAGE TO CHINO was Vale's favorite of her half-dozen films with O'Brien, and it's easy to see why. She had a good role, even driving a stagecoach, and in addition to that, she designed her own wardrobe! Tired of off the rack dresses from the studio wardrobe department, she made sketches and chose the fabric for dresses the wardrobe department made up for her; the dresses then went into the studio's inventory and were reused. Vale said, "I've seen them time and time again in Westerns."

O'Brien has some especially great stuntwork in this one, swinging from a chandelier and also transferring from one moving stagecoach to another, which Vale -- who was also in the shot -- later confirmed O'Brien did himself.

The STAGE TO CHINO cast includes Glenn Strange, William Haade, Harry Cording, Martin Garralaga, and Ethan Laidlaw, plus music from Nora Lou Martin and the Pals of the Golden West.

STAGE TO CHINO was directed by Edward Killy and filmed by J. Roy Hunt. It runs 59 minutes.

PRAIRIE LAW and STAGE TO CHINO are good-looking prints. There are no extras.

With this latest pair of films I've now seen seven of the nine films which comprise the George O'Brien Western Collection. Links to previous reviews of films in this set: LAWLESS VALLEY (1938), RACKETEERS OF THE RANGE (1939), TIMBER STAMPEDE (1939), TROUBLE IN SUNDOWN (1939), and BULLET CODE (1940).

The George O'Brien Western Collection is one of my all-time favorite Warner Archive releases. Fingers crossed that a final set of O'Brien's RKO Westerns will be released in the future, including the two remaining films he made with Laraine (Johnson) Day, BORDER G-MAN (1938) and PAINTED DESERT (1938), plus GUN LAW (1938) with Rita Oehmen, who was the mother of Charmian Carr of THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD collection. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Tonight's Movies: James A. FitzPatrick Traveltalks Shorts, Volume 1 - A Warner Archive DVD Review

I've been fascinated with James A. FitzPatrick's Traveltalks shorts since I was first exposed to them many moons ago in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, PART II (1976).

I'm absolutely delighted that 60 of Fitzpatrick's Technicolor shorts have been compiled by the Warner Archive in a three-disc set, James A. FitzPatrick Traveltalks Shorts, Volume 1. These shorts give brief Technicolor looks -- typically around eight minutes -- at interesting places around the world. I'm hoping for several more volumes to be released in the future!

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, PART II memorably cut together FitzPatrick's classic signoff, "And so we say farewell to..." In this set FitzPatrick says hello and farewell to cities and countries all over the globe, including Japan, Europe, Australia, Mexico, Canada, and countless spots throughout the United States.

There are many aspects which make these shorts interesting. The earliest Technicolor Traveltalks, in 1934, predated the first three-strip Technicolor feature film, BECKY SHARP (1935). Two 1934 shorts are included in the set, SWITZERLAND THE BEAUTIFUL (1934) and IRELAND: THE EMERALD ISLE (1934).

Winton Hoch, who worked at Technicolor helping to develop the three-color system, got his start as a cinematographer shooting Traveltalks. His work in this set includes BEAUTIFUL BANFF AND LAKE LOUISE (1935), YELLOWSTONE PARK: NATURE'S PLAYGROUND (1936), and HONG KONG: HUB OF THE ORIENT (1937), among others.

In the '40s Hoch moved into shooting feature films. He would eventually win the Oscar for John Ford's SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949); I'll be reviewing the Warner Archive's brand-new YELLOW RIBBON Blu-ray here in the near future.

Oscar-winning British cinematographer Jack Cardiff also developed his skills shooting for the Traveltalks series, including this set's PARIS ON PARADE (1938).

I often think while watching these shorts how amazing it must have been for audiences of the mid '30s to see faraway places in vivid color for the first time. Shorts such as MODERN TOKYO (1935), ORIENTAL PARADISE (1936), and FLORAL JAPAN (1937) also provided U.S. audiences their last tranquil glimpses of Japan before the start of the Second World War.

During the war years, the shorts would focus on the U.S. and also further our "Good Neighbor" policy, looking at points south such as Mexico, before returning to Europe in the post-war years.

One of my favorites in the set is LOS ANGELES "WONDER CITY OF THE WEST" (1935), which includes looks at various movie studios. FitzPatrick even shakes hands with Walt Disney.

The shorts are fascinating windows in time -- including, on occasion, aspects which might now be considered a bit politically incorrect. The title RED MEN ON PARADE (1941) -- set in Gallup, New Mexico -- is not one likely to be used these many years later. Kudos to the Warner Archive for including such shorts without regard for the odd phrase or attitude which may seem jarring now but are historically valuable.

As far as I can tell at a glance, the shorts in the set are presented in chronological order, though many titles are skipped for unknown reasons. (I am guessing some of them might need work done before they can be released.) The shorts included in this set span a dozen years, starting in 1934 and running through 1946.

Some of the shorts have light scratches, mostly notable during the opening credits, while others look terrific throughout.

The set I received consisted of silver-backed pressed discs.

Hopefully many more Traveltalk shorts will be forthcoming from the Warner Archive!

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD set. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.

Tonight's Movie: Finding Dory (2016)

It's been a fairly sparse year so far in terms of brand-new movies which have interested me enough to go see them in a theater.

To date all of this year's "new" movies have come from different divisions of Disney: the Walt Disney Pictures drama THE FINEST HOURS (2016), Walt Disney Animation's ZOOTOPIA (2016), Marvel's CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), and now Pixar's FINDING DORY (2016).

FINDING DORY is, of course, the long-awaited sequel to FINDING NEMO (2003). A year after meeting Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence), the notoriously forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) suddenly remembers she has a family.

Dory, who has always had a memory disability, had been separated in childhood from her loving parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy). She's determined to find them again, with the help of her friends Marlin and Nemo, not to mention Crush the turtle (voiced by codirector/coscreenwriter Andrew Stanton).

Dory's search leads to a marine institute, where she makes friends with Hank (Ed O'Neill), an octopus whose ability to camouflage himself proves most helpfful.

With a similar "search" theme, FINDING DORY is something of a repeat of FINDING NEMO. However, it's beautiful to look at and is quality entertainment, even if it has a tiny bit of a "been there, done that" feel. One has only to have watched the many horrible trailers which preceded DORY to be grateful for its wholesome, heartwarming story and the care with which it was made.

I would have liked to see it have a bit more humor, while simultaneously I felt that the climax, with the octopus driving at truck, took the story too far out of the range of reality. However, those are minor complaints.

Dory's relationship with Hank the octopus is a lot of fun, and the film also utilizes her ability to "speak whale" in an amusing way.

One of the really cute storytelling twists is turning the "Voice of Sigourney Weaver," heard as the recorded host at the marine institute, into something of a character. Other voices heard in the film are Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bill Hader, Kate McKinnon, and, of course, Pixar's good luck charm, John Ratzenberger, playing a crab. Alexander Gould, who voiced Nemo in the original film, was brought back to voice another character.

Be sure to stay to the very end of the credits for a nice animated surprise.

FINDING DORY was directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane. The movie runs 97 minutes.

Parental Advisory: FINDING DORY is rated PG for "mild thematic elements."

Like all Pixar movies, FINDING DORY was preceded by an animated short. Today's short, PIPER (2016), was as good as anything Pixar has ever done. It's the story of a little bird whose mother is showing him how to leave the nest and begin to look for his own food on the beach, presented with remarkable animation and real heart. I look forward to watching it again on DVD or Blu-ray one day.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Key Largo (1948) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

The Warner Archive has released KEY LARGO (1948), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, in a beautiful Blu-ray edition.

The Archive previously released a Blu-ray of Bogart and Bacall's THE BIG SLEEP (1946), which I reviewed in March. Their DARK PASSAGE (1947), which I reviewed at Noir City Hollywood last year, has come to Blu-ray as well. All we need now is a Blu-ray edition of the first Bogart-Bacall film, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944).

Like the other Bogart and Bacall films, KEY LARGO is a movie I saw many times on local television when I was growing up, and it helped further my interest in classic films. It holds up quite well, although watching it for the first time in years, it was more apparent to me that it was a filmed stage play.

That play, by Maxwell Anderson, was adapted into a screenplay by Richard Brooks and John Huston, with Huston also directing. The play's original cast, incidentally, included James Gregory, Paul Muni, Jose Ferrer, and Karl Malden.

I also realized this time around how much KEY LARGO has in common with THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936), which helped make Bogart a star. Both films are essentially one-room dramas, based on plays about a group of people held hostage at a remote location. But whereas Bogart is the villain of THE PETRIFIED FOREST, he's the hero in KEY LARGO.

Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a WWII vet who visits Key Largo to pay his respects to James (Lionel Barrymore) and Nora Temple (Bacall), the father and widow of a close army buddy who died in action.

As a hurricane approaches, McCloud and the Temples are held hostage in the Temples' hotel by gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his hencmen (Harry Lewis, Thomas Gomez, Dan Seymour). Rocco's alcoholic moll (Claire Trevor) is also on hand.

As the storm rages, Rocco and McCloud engage in repeated arguments, leading to a final confrontation on a boat once the storm has passed.

Though a bit talky at times, it's a good drama with a strong cast. This is the film for which Trevor won her Oscar as Best Supporting Actress.

I especially like Bacall in this, playing a much more low-key, quiet woman than in her other films with Bogart. Much of her acting is nonverbal, and she does a very fine job.

I also enjoy Bogart in this; it's a contemplative yet heroic role, and he makes the most of it.

The supporting cast includes Monte Blue, John Rodney, Jay Silverheels, Marc Lawrence, and William Haade.

KEY LARGO was filmed in black and white by Karl Freund. The score, which is particularly good in the closing moments, is by Max Steiner. The movie runs 100 minutes.

KEY LARGO is an excellent print. The disc includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the WBShop.

Today at Disney California Adventure: Frozen and Soarin'

I had a really wonderful time today seeing two of the newest attractions at Disney California Adventure!

We arrived at park opening and got Fast Passes for the day's first show of FROZEN - LIVE AT THE HYPERION.

We returned to the theater an hour before showtime, which I highly recommend for those who'd like to pick the best seats. We sat 10th row center in Orchestra which was absolutely perfect in terms of sight lines, including seeing the icy chandelier and snow which are part of the show's special effects.

This screened backdrop before the show began had terrific water effects!

I'm delighted to say that FROZEN - LIVE AT THE HYPERION exceeded my expectations. It is a 64-minute Broadway-style show of the highest caliber.

Over the years I saw ALADDIN a few times, but while it was very good it still felt a bit like "theme park entertainment" at times, in terms of both its abridged storytelling and the Genie's irreverent playing to the audience with topical humor.

Official Disney photo:

FROZEN is given the time to tell the complete story, with singing, performances, and creative staging to do it justice. I teared up more than once from sheer pleasure at the outstanding music.

Official Disney photo:

An official Disney photo of the finale:

"Let It Go" may be the most overexposed Disney song of many years, but its performance was thrilling; as the Los Angeles Times review said, it's a "real-deal showstopper." The climax, including a costume change for Elsa, elicited gasps from the audience. This is a superb show which is quite likely to match or exceed the 13-year run of ALADDIN.

Alas, I wish I could say the same for the new attraction Soarin' Around the World, which replaced Soarin' Over California beginning yesterday, June 17th.

While the original ride gave the feel of "dropping in" on actual locations, Soarin' Around the World could be termed Soarin' Over CGI!

Although there are pretty shots of locations such as the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Majal, and Monument Valley, there is way too much CGI fakery. I was impressed with the first shot of a polar bear, but was dubious they could have gotten even more perfectly placed polar bears in the same shot. When the orca jumped out of the water at the perfect moment to end the shot, I knew I was in make-believe land. It happens again in multiple places; for instance, it seems highly unlikely they could have flown so close to a herd of elephants without startling them.

I don't know how much CGI was used in the original film, other than fireworks at the end, but any that was used was unobtrusive. The obvious phoniness of the new version takes away some of the fun; surely they could have found impressive shots which were real, or at least seemed closer to the real deal?

Though I believe they could have done a better job, it's still fun and I'll go on it again. And I'll definitely be revisiting FROZEN!

Have a great weekend!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Around the Blogosphere This Week

Miscellaneous bits of news and fun stuff from around the internet...

...Fantastic news for fans of musical theater in general and SHE LOVES ME in particular: On June 30th the current Broadway production, starring Zachary Levi, Laura Benanti, and Jane Krakowski, will be streaming live. Details on methods to do it are here. This will make history as the first-ever live national streaming broadcast of a Broadway show. I love SHE LOVES ME and have had the joy of seeing it on stage with Pam Dawber and Joel Higgins; I've also reviewed a British TV production with Robin Ellis and Gemma Craven. I'm thrilled at the prospect of watching it remotely, live from Broadway! More info is available from Deadline, The New York Times, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter.

...In other musical news, WICKED is coming to movie theaters...but not till 2019. My review of the U.S. touring theatrical production earlier this year may be found here.

...New film book: FRANCES DEE: A FILM HISTORY by Ed Hulse, a film historian I know of from the Lone Pine Film Festival. The foreward is by Frances Dee's grandson, Wyatt McCrea. Thanks to my friend Jane for the tip!

...It was lovely to read that Stuart Margolin and Gretchen Corbett of THE ROCKFORD FILES have reunited for a West Virginia stage production of ON GOLDEN POND.

...Start saving those pennies: Barnes and Noble's annual summer Criterion half-price sale is reported to be scheduled for July 5th.

...Another important date is coming up: tickets for this October's Lone Pine Film Festival are scheduled to go on sale on Monday, June 27th. My coverage of the 2015 festival is here.

...Maybe we'll need to make a side trip to Big Pine and try this highly rated BBQ restaurant!

...If you're ever in Taiwan, there's a Hello Kitty Cafe. Who knew?

...In April we enjoyed milk from Broguiere's Dairy at Milk Jar Cookies. It was distressing to read that it's possible the dairy will be forced to close by eminent domain. Hopefully there's a solution which will work for all involved.

...Famous film directors express their love for Turner Classic Movies.

...From Los Angeles Magazine, a story on the movie memorabilia collections of the late Marvin Paige and Eric Caidin.

...Coming this September: The Margaret Lockwood Centennial Blogathon, hosted by Terry at A Shroud of Thoughts.

...Leonard Maltin has a new home on the web, His latest review is of Disney's FINDING DORY (2016) which I anticipate seeing in the next few days.

...Reviews, reviews, and more reviews: The Blonde at the Film looks at one of my old favorites, TWO WEEKS WITH LOVE (1950), which I reviewed last November...Ivan has reviewed the great Western Noir STATION WEST (1948) for ClassicFlix...Glenn Erickson has many interesting recent reviews, including the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)...Will McKinley has written about Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in HOLIDAY (1938) for the getTV website...and Colin's most recent review at Riding the High Country is on the most enjoyable Robert Taylor Western AMBUSH (1950).

..."25 Reasons the Good Wife Had the Best Guest Cast Ever." One recurring actor, Renee Elise Goldsberry, just won the Tony Award for HAMILTON. My favorite guest actor is Carrie Preston, who plays the unusual but brilliant Elsbeth Tascioni, whose brain seems to ping-pong all over the room while she processes information and then lands on the perfect strategy.

...Another reason to subscribe to Netflix: Julie Andrews will star in a new children's series, JULIE'S GREENROOM.

...One more TV story, a terrific one on Melissa Fitzgerald, who played Carol on THE WEST WING. She has left acting and now works for a veterans organization in Washington, D.C.

...Notable Passings: Janet Waldo, whose career spanned 1938 to 2000, has passed on at the age of 96. Waldo's screen career included appearing as Tim Holt's leading lady in THE BANDIT TRAIL (1941) and LAND OF THE OPEN RANGE (1942), but she was best known as a voice actress, where her most popular roles included Judy Jetson in THE JETSONS and Josie in JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS. The busy Waldo was also a radio star, appearing in the title role on MEET CORLISS ARCHER from 1943 to 1956...Ronnie Claire Edwards, who played Corabeth Walton Godsey on THE WALTONS, has died at the age of 83. When I was about 11 I had the pleasure of visiting the WALTONS set and watching her work...Ann Morgan Guilbert, best known as Millie on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, has passed on at 87...Disney animator Willis Pyle has passed on at the age of 101. It's fascinating how many Disney animators and Imagineers have lived into their 90s or, in Pyle's case, beyond.

...For even more movie-related links, my previous roundup may be found here.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Movie Stars and Music

It's been an unexpectedly heavy workweek, hence this being a slower blogging week than usual!

The lazy days of summer are right around the corner, and what better way to enjoy some time off than relaxing while playing some LP's? Here's a selection of photos of classic film stars enjoying their record albums. Looking at these photos, it's fun to contemplate that somehow records are now back "in" again.

Jimmy Stewart:

Debbie Reynolds:

Ginger Rogers:

Audrey Hepburn:

Natalie Wood:

Frank Sinatra:

Doris Day:

June Allyson and children:

Mitzi Gaynor (who has great musical taste!):

Ann Miller:

Clint Eastwood:

Am I the only one who gets twitchy seeing so many people putting their fingers all over the records? You're supposed to hold them by the edges and the center, never on the playing surface...

I wonder if any of these records are still enjoyed today, or whether they're all "gone with the wind"?

I should be back this weekend with a link roundup and movie reviews, and I'll also have a preview of TCM's September schedule in the near future.