Joe Sixpack's Film Blog: December, 2002

Hi there...! Welcome to my weblog of off-the-cuff reviews of movies that I've seen in theatres, watched on TV, picked up from the library, or recently rented... I suppose I watch a lot of films (you be the judge), so I figured there wasn't any reason I shouldn't add a few movie reviews to the Slipcue site, along with the music reviews and other goofy junk that I've already been posting for years. Besides, this will save John Ashcroft a bunch of time from on having to put a surveillance tap on my account at Ye Olde Video Hut... Other reviews, including a few artist profiles and other monthly review columns are available at my Film Review Index

December 1-15, 2002


"The Bitter Tea Of General Yen" (Columbia, 1933)
Frank Capra's groundbreaking story of an interracial romance between a Catholic missionary in wartorn China (played by a gorgeous young Barbara Stanwyck) and a cruel, haughty Chinese warlord, played -- unfortunately, but in the style of the time -- by a white guy. It's a very unusual film, and much different than the other Capra classics. To begin with, the story takes place outside of the director's usual Middle-America tromping grounds, and his dramatizations of the bloodshed and chaos taking place in Asia are pretty amazing... Hard-hitting stuff for a still-isolationist nation to sit through, but material Capra would sucessfully revisit in his WWII propaganda films. The main story, though, is about two people struggling to bridge a deep racial divide -- although the film is rife with sterotypes, Capra clearly meant to project a progressive image onto his characters. It may be a little difficult for modern audiences to passively sit through some of the dialogue, but the film's still a fascinating snapshot of its times, worth considering on a variety of levels. The cinematography and set design are also both quite stunning.

"The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer" (Universal, 1935)
Cary Cooper does a restrained slow burn as an independently-minded but highly capable colonial soldier, stationed in the remote, volatile edges of the far-flung and perpetually shaky British empire. The locale is the rugged, untameable mountain terrain of Kashmir and Afghanistan, where local warlords and would-be kings wreck havoc with the disciplined, top-heavy imperial armies. Sound familiar? Yeah, I thought it might. Anyway, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, good old-fashioned black-and-white adventure flick, which includes a few interesting character studies inside the barracks walls. Franchot Tone is particularly appealing as the tart-tounged newcomer who antagonizes Cooper, but inevitably becomes his best friend and comrade in arms. Recommended!

"On Dangerous Ground" (RKO, 1951)
Director Nicholas Ray turned the conventions of film noir up on end in this tense, quirky thriller. The film starts off with one of the most intense, ugly and fear-provoking character sketches of the genre -- Robert Ryan plays a big city cop whose soul has been killed by his job -- he's seen too many hopheads, gun molls and lowlifes, and they've infected him with their grubbiness, transforming him into "a gangster with a badge." Although his sadistic methods get results, Ryan's partners are afraid to work with him and the chief of police has to repeatedly reprimand him to take it easy with the rough stuff. When these warnings don't work, he gets reassigned to a murder case in a presumably bucolic podunk town. Where the plot goes from there is unusual and unexpected; suffice it to say this is no run-of-the-mill cops and robbers movie. Beautiful cinematography, too, by the way. Unusual and highly recommended.


"The Narrow Margin" (RKO, 1952)
Tough guys don't come tougher than Charles McGraw as a hard-nosed, gravel-voiced West Coast cop who's been detailed to escort a mob widow cross-country to her date with the Los Angeles grand jury. This taut film noir takes place on the tight confines of a passenger train, brilliantly blocked in a series of tight corners and cramped cabins. The direction is perfect, though... You never lose your way or wonder where the action has taken you, and the stifling sense of oppressive constriction matches the McGraw's mood as he steadily runs out of options. Great, gritty dialog, particularly from femme fatale Marie Windsor (who is a dead ringer for Ileana Douglas) and several running gags that bring character to a fast-moving film.

"Love Affair" (RKO, 1939)
Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne star in this smoothly directed, wittily scripted romance movie. The film opens with some brilliant dialogue as the two meet and flirt together on an ocean liner, but once they dock in New York, the plot devolves into a convoluted melodrama, as the screenwriters struggle to come up with some silly reason these two star-crossed lovers shouldn't just get together right away. Both actors are splendid in their roles; the film is a delight.

"That Naughty Girl (Mam'zelle Pigalle)" (1958)
The ever-foxy Brigette Bardot stars in this slight, ineffective would-be slapstick comedy, co-directed by Roger Vadim. The plot is slapdash, and while Bardot is a total babe, we don't really get much of a chance to take in her charms... She has a kooky, carefree dance scene, and wears some goofy, garish outfits during a prolonged dream sequence, but really none of it is worth sitting through the actual film. Also of note: a bumbling, nebbish-y, mustachioed police inspector, who is continually hoodwinked by the heros, is doubtless the inspiration for Peter Sellers' infamous Inspector Clousseau. Still doesn't make this film worth watching, though.

By the way... I also saw Al Gore on TV this night... His stint with Saturday Night Live was mostly pretty fun, although I confess I was a little shocked to see him directly lampooning Trent Lott... The skit was very funny, but not the sort of thing, I'd wager, that goes over well with the chummy, insular old-boys network of the US Senate. Not a huge surprise, then, to hear the next day that he was taking himself out of the running for the 2004 Presidential race.


"Journey Into Fear" (RKO, 1943)
Joseph Cotton plays an American munitions salesman who runs afoul of Axis agents seeking to delay his company's hard-won deal with the Turkish government... He's one of those bumbling mystery movie schnooks who keeps digging themselves in deeper and deeper, causing viewers to repeatedly smack their foreheads in disbelief... Orson Welles plays a blustering Turkish general who takes the American under his wing, perhaps protecting him, perhaps sending him to his doom. Placed on a cramped ocean liner, Cotton soon finds himself stalked by a variety of goons: which are the good guys and which are the baddies? Can you take the tension 'til you find out??


"Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (Columbia, 1936)


"Blue Skies" (Universal, 1946)
Bing sings and Fred treads in this sketchily-plotted musical, which pits Astaire and Crosby against one another, rivals for the hand of the blonde, domestically-minded Joan Caulfield. This frothy postwar frolic has a wild Techncolor exuberance, with crazy explosions all over the pastel-lined spectrum (and an odd tilt towards purple). The sad thing, though, is that this isn't a very good movie -- the plot is razor thin, barely a hint of an excuse to stage a bunch of great (and lesser) Irving Berlin tunes. Some numbers fall flat (and Billy DeWolfe's interminable, painfully unfunny drag routine brings the movie to a screeching halt)... Still, Astaire's killer performance on "Puttin' On The Ritz" is the stuff that legends are made of: as he's angelically hoofing his heart out, a curtain parts behind him, revealing a phalanx of distant, miniature Astaires, keeping time with the big guy. A technical and aesthetic triumph! This flick might be worth it for that routine alone, although Bing gets in some choice vocal performances as well. A dud scriptwise, but it still has two of the greatest performers of the 20th Century, both still at their peak.


"The Story Of G. I. Joe" (Lester Cowan Productions, 1945)
Burgess Meredith is perhaps a little too beatific in his portrayal of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, the much-beloved Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent who brought the stories of everyday American soldiers home to readers back in the States. The Army infantrymen revered Pyle the way they loved cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who also had the guts and humility to slog it out in the mud with them, and let the folks back home know how they met the war with an all-American mix of grit, fatalism and good humor. The production values of this movie, with distracting backdrops and obviously artificial studio sets, don't hold up that well in comparison to the hyper-real war flicks that came in its wake, yet few movies have captured just how grubby, desolate and miserable the day-to-day lives of the ground soldiers could be. Also, an extended battle sequence filmed in the real-life rubble of a recently "liberated" Italian town is remarkable for showing just how extensive the war damage was -- it was total warfare, and it's amazing that Europe ever recovered from the devastation. A surprisingly bleak, if somewhat episodic, story, framing an iconic, groundbreaking war movie against which all others have to be measured. (One note of complaint: the DVD version has shamefully little in the way of special features, just one brief clip of the real Ernie Pyle taping a news reel interview with a couple of G.I.s saying "hi" to the folks back home, and a series of illegible reproductions of old newspaper columns under his byline... It's really inexcusable that a full-length documentary about Pyle and his reporting was not also included... Oh, well. It's still a good film.)


"The Ipcress File" (Rank, 1965)
Inspired by a night of Powers and Bond (see below), I decided to track down this early Michael Caine spy thriller, which introduces the character Harry Palmer, a seedy secret agent who walks a fine line between sleuth and second story man. It's a fun bit of Cold War fluff -- the British Home Office must track down the spy syndicate responsible for the abduction and "brain draining" of several of the world's top scientists. Caine plays the schnook who gets thrown in the middle of a complex power struggle, but soldiers his way through past the withering stares of his snobbish commanding officers. The plot isn't that surprising, but the film is charming in an Our Man Flint kinda way, and the psychological torture sequence at the end is a real doozy. Fun film... recommended!


"Cabin In The Sky" (MGM, 1943)
A star-studded all-black cast excels in this charming wartime comedy about a Saturday sinner/Sunday saint whose soul is in peril after a deadly gunfight in a house of ill repute. Jack Benny's African-American straightman, Rochester, plays Little Joe, the sinner whose soul teeters on the edge of damnation... On one shoulder is a leering, good-natured devil (whose imps include a boisterous "idea man," played by Louis Armstrong); on the other shoulder, a solemn, Robeson-eque General of the angelic host. Their earthly agents are Lena Horne, as a sleek, sexy temptress, and Ethel Waters as Little Joe's hard-working, church-going wife, whose prayers and devotion are the only thing that earn him a reprieve when the devil comes a-calling. The movie is largely a vehicle for Waters to project her considerable charm, although the supporting cast includes a remarkable wealth of early African-American show biz talent, including Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Rex Ingram, as well as numerous hoofers and bit actors, the most notable of which include Dorothy Dandridge's mother, Ruby Dandridge, the magnetic John William ("Bubbles") Sublett, Mantan Moreland (whose legacy was explored in Spike Lee's Bamboozled), and Willie Best, whose eye-rolling "darkie" characters were often anathema to right-minded moviegoers. Director Vincente Minelli, in his directorial debut, did a fabulous job with what could easily have been played off as offensive, stereotypical tripe. Instead, the movie is beautifully produced, and the characters are as fully formed as in most of the "white" comedies of the era; in fact, plotwise it's even better than many of the wartime toss-offs of the 1940s. Particularly striking is the camera work, which is fluidly dynamic and makes amazing use of depth and movement; some of the dance scenes are really incredible, particularly Bubbles Sublett's big scene towards the movies end, and his dance number with Waters. (Apparently Busby Berkeley pitched in on a number or two, although cinematographer Sidney Wagner deserves a medal for his work, along with Minelli, who made a gem out of a potential turkey.) Honestly, this is a great movie -- if you enjoyed the musical splendor of Stormy Weather, then this is that film's perfect companion.


"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (MGM, 1969)
This is the James Bond film that nobody ever watches... Which is a pity since it is perhaps the best of the franchise. The all-but-forgotten Aussie actor George Lazenby plays Bond as a rough, utilitarian hardass -- when the action starts, he is swift, silent, brutal, and entirely more believable as a secret agent than any of the campier Bond incarnations. Plus... Avengers actress Diana Rigg as the ultimate "Bond girl..." Whew, baby!! There's plenty of the patented Playboy-ish Bond sexism, but Lazenby is also strangely sentimental. The plot's good, the skiing is good, the villains are scary, the violence is exciting and the ending's a doozy. If you haven't watched this one yet, you really should give it a whirl... it's a cool film.

"Austin Powers In... Goldmember" (2002)
I couldn't resist the double feature, especially with the delicious Blofeld/Dr. Evil connection. With fifteen minutes left 'til closing time, I dutifully trotted down to my local video shack, and picked this up as a rental. The opening had me howling, and plenty of other great gags held my attention thoughout. Mike Myers isn't just a great gag man, he also is one of the most inventive filmmakers around today, in terms of seeing the potential use of the medium for fantastical and playful disruptions of "normal" perception. He just has a great sense for the unexpected, and a delightful ability to balance it with the painfully obvious. Still... Has Dr. Evil really gone all soft and squishy on us? Only "Austin Powers IV: Mooncroaker" will tell!


"Bird Of Paradise/The Lady Refuses" (RKO, 1932/1931)
This DVD gathers two little-known, unrelated lesser films of the early sound era. Bird Of Paradise is an incredibly offensive exercise in exoticized racism, charmingly set in the Hawaiian Islands, and featuring a callow young Joel McCrea as the studly white guy who hooks up with the local chieftain's "tabu" daughter (played by Dolores Del Rio, who I find kind of icky). It's the same sort of dazzle-them-with-modern-gadgets-before-they-throw-us-in-the-volcano plot that was explored a few years later in Waikiki Wedding (which is a much more charming movie...), here handled clumsily by director King Vidor. There's a modicum of interesting, reasonably authentic Polynesian dancing (some of which was choreographed, unremarkably, by Busby Berkeley), and the indigenous cast speaks in real Hawaiian, but in the main part this is simply an exploitative and unentertaining film. By contrast, The Lady Refuses is a B-movie with a heart of gold, featuring Betty Compson as a London streetwalker who enters an aristocratic family torn apart by a Jazz Age generation gap. Although the script contorts wildly to avoid offensive language, the underlying content is pretty raunchy, and pretty overt. Compson had an unusual onscreen presence -- compelling, although not as picture-perfect pretty as the starlet that would later flood Hollywood. Gilbert Emery, as the family father, Sir Gerald Courtney, is also quite charming. For folks looking for fun pre-Code material, this is a film worth checking out.


"Power Puff Girls" (Cartoon Network, 2002)
Visually innovative and cute, but lethargically plotted. Yeah, sure, I get that these folks are brilliantly tweaking the conventions and cliches of multiple pop culture genres -- comicbooks, television, kiddie cartoons, Japanese manga, creature features and even classic movies, with "The Professor" as a nod towards Cary Grant, and in the final, inevitable King Kong reference at the film's end. But while the images on screen zip along at lightning speed, the plot does not, and the film simply seems like a TV show that's been padded out to stretch it into feature film length. I really wanted to like this, but wound up feeling restless and bored.


"Lilo And Stitch" (Disney, 2002)
A thoroughly charming animated feature that works on a variety of levels. A genetically engineered, hyperviolent koala-like alien crash lands on Earth, where he is adopted by a kooky little Hawaiian girl with problems of her own. This film succeeds as both slapstick and lightly-leavened schmaltz... Heck, even the musical numbers didn't bug me... which is rare for a modern Disney film! It's particularly nice to see Disney willing to portray a "broken home" in such a sympathetic light... The only regret I have is that there isn't enough of Stitch being chaotic (and hilariously funny), but I guess that's what the sequel will be for! Fun film -- highly recommended!

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