"The Human Comedy" (1943)
Pure, distilled, Grade-A, all-star, all-American, accept-no-substitutions, concentrated, three-hankie, melodramatic, sentimental, heartwarming, white picket fence, patriotic wartime schmaltz. They don't make 'em like this anymore. Mickey Rooney stars as Homer Macauley, a bright-eyed, fresh-faced, optimistic teenager living in Smalltown, USA during the height of World War Two, when all able bodied young men, including his older brother, have gone off to fight against the fascists and save civilization itself. Still, even with soldiers passing through town and cannons crowding the trains that are headed back East towards Europe, the war is still far, far away, and civilization can still be saved right here, back on the homefront. Taking his brother's place as "the man of the family," Homer learns about hard work, fair play, compassion for others, and about disappointment and heartbreak as well. It's all unremittingly corny, but that's entirely the point. This is not a modern movie -- it isn't cynical or packed with obligatory violence, nor is it politically nuanced or notably subtle. But it is a fine document of its time, sort of an ultimate exposition of the best and most cheerful face that mainstream, white America could put on the underlying grimness that a total war mobilization meant for America and the world. It's a piece of homefront propaganda, but no less true to life, in its way, than any other film of the time. The screenplay by William Saroyan is set in the author's home in California's fertile San Joaquin Valley, and while he makes sweeping nods towards the Valley's legendary cultural diversity (omitting, for the most part, blacks, Jews and Germans...), Saroyan gives Norman Rockwell a run for his money in the sentimental Americana category. A couple of the religiously-themed scenes may be suffocating to secular or nonsectarian audiences, but other than the film's persistent preachiness, it's a fascinating slice of wartime historical hokum -- worth checking out its time capsule qualities, as well as for entertainment value. Plus, it's packed with loads of great character actors and all-star cameos, including Frank Morgan (aka The Wizard Of Oz) as Homer's older mentor, Don Defore and (a very young) Robert Mitchum as babyfaced soldiers on leave, and Carl Switzler ("Alfalfa," of the Little Rascals) as a teenage hooligan. This movie is sappy, sure... but it's also worth checking out if you have any interest in understanding American society at this critical juncture in our national history.
"American Splendor" (2003)
Wow. What an amazing adaptation of comicbook author Harvey Pekar's unusual autobiographical ouvre. I used to read American Splendor back when it first came out, though I basically lost track of the series in the mid-1980s, as other comics rose to the fore on my cultural radar. Watching this film was exactly like reading the books (and brilliantly replicates a lot of Pekar's original schticks...) I feel like I'm caught up at last... and now I'm ready for the next issue to come out! (PS - amazing how actor Paul Giamatti looks more like the comicbook version of Pekar than the real Pekar himself does... Now, that's great casting!)
"Forever Female" (Paramount, 1953)
It's William Holden night, here at Chez Sixpack... Here, Holden stars as a brash, principled playwright who hitches his star to a famous-but-fading broadway star, played by Ginger Rogers. Rogers's Beatrice Page is an interesting character -- she's at the top of her game, but only for as long as she can keep up appearances and fend off her younger rivals. Among these is a chirpy, headstrong, would-be starlet (played by Pat Crowley) who attaches herself to Holden's coattails, at first out of mere opportunism, and then for true love. The Holden character is a bit too mannered -- too anchored in the old, pre-'60s fixation with The Moody Writer as a great dramatic character; Crowley is herself a bit irritating as well -- this was supposed to be her big breakous role, but she's a bit too perky and Annette Funicello, and may get on your nerves. At the heart of this film, then, is Ginger Rogers, along with Paul Douglas as her ex-husband, a Broadway producer who's still not-so-secretly in love with her. His career is in limbo because he can't move on, and he continues to pick plays based solely on whether they'll serve as vehicles for her continued fame. Their relationship is deeply layered and consistently interesting, as is the underlying theme of how female actors must keep up appearances and pursue an impossible ideal of youth. Plus, Paul Douglas is such a great character actor -- I love watching him in just about anything! -- and seeing Rogers star in a relatively unsympathetic role is pretty unusual as well. The portrayal of the vanity and backstage whispering that makes up the theater scene is territory that's been covered elsewhere, but it gets a pretty good airing here, in this well-paced, entertaining film. Recommended.
"The Wild Rovers" (1971)
Where do you go with the Western genre, following the hyperviolence of The Wild Bunch and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s? For writer-director Blake Edwards, the answer is to delve into the antiheroic, farsical and naturalistic aspects of the human condition. Old-timer William Holden and prettyboy Ryan O'Neal co-star as a pair of down and out ranchhands who decide, more or less on a whim, to rob the local bank and head off down South to retire into a Mexican idyll. This film is very much "of its time," more or less a frontier days version of Easy Rider, in which the buddy film genre is taken apart inside-out and transposed into an earthy, unsentimental, artfully paced tragedy. It's an exceptional performance from Holden; by contrast, O'Neal has little depth or nuance to offer, even given that his character is supposed to be callow and raw. None of which detracts from the film itself -- it's not great, but it's certainly worth checking out.
"Comedy Of Innocence" (France: 2000/US: 2003)
I admit it: I was looking for something more Hollywood, but all the good, trashy new releases were checked out on a Friday night, so I had to go for a second-tier rental instead. A European supernatural arthouse thriller seemed like a good option, even if the steady stream of similar films -- Abre Tus Ojos, Sixth Sense, The Others, The Ring, The Eye, et al. is getting to be a bit much. And why do all these films have to feature precocious, knowing little children who intone wisdom that seems beyond their years? In this case, it's a moody little Parisian boy named Camille, who wigs out after his ninth birthday, and tells his mother (played, somewhat flatly, by Isabelle Huppert) that he is in fact another child altogether, a boy named Paul, who as it turns out is a kid on the other side of town who drowned a couple of years ago. For some reason, Mom humors him, and they take a cab ride to the other boy's apartment, which is where the truly unsettling part of this film begins. The dead child's mourning mother appears, and insinuates herself in the other family's life, seducing Camille away from his family -- or so it seems. The middle section of this film slides into unreality and surrealism, as the actions of all involved seem warped and unexplainable. What's going on here? Are these people all dead, and living in some sort of Purgatory of unresolved emotional baggage of their former lives? Or are they all just nuts? The best performance, by far, in this film is by the elastic, elfin, wide-eyed Jeanne Balibar, who plays the other mother, and seems in turns both pixie-like and demonic. I agree, this isn't the greatest film ever, and the ending seems more rushed than deft, but the nauseating uncertainty that builds up as the plot unfolds shows that the filmmakers certainly had something on the ball... It does kind of stand the ghost-kid genre on its head a bit, and may make for an entertaining rental.
"The Italian Straw Hat" ("Un Chapeau De Paille D'Italie")(1927)
Director Rene Clair apparently pioneered the "screwball comedy" genre with this feature-length silent, in which a nervous groom unwittingly finds himself in the middle of a romantic triangle, when his horse stops for a snack and eats the hat of a married woman off having a fling with a belligerent army officer... The officer badgers our hero into finding a replacement, which is all very well and fine... except that today is his wedding day, and the guests are all waiting ofr him to say "I do!" The first half of the film is a little hard to follow, but once it picks up steam, this film is a delight. My enjoyment of the movie was hampered somewhat by the horridly inappropriate soundtrack to the 1991 Connoiseur/Film Preserve edition, which was composed by Emilio Kauderer, and which was so awful and distracting that I had to watch the film with the sound off. Still, it turned out to be a fun movie. By the way, the best role in the film is clearly that of he groom's aggrieved, harried valet, who sees all the chaos unfold at every every turn -- watch for him!
"The Front" (Columbia, 1976)
Woody Allen stars in this sharp political satire, in which a schleppy, low-life bookie is enlisted by an old friend to act as his "front," so that the friend -- a socially progressive Hollywood screenwriter -- can circumvent the Korean War-era anticommunist blacklist. Allen is superb in his role, projecting his well-known nebbish image onto the Howard Prince character, in a fine turn that makes you wish he'd taken on more acting parts outside of his own films. Zero Mostel also stars, poignantly, as Hecky Brown, a TV comedian who also runs afoul of the censors -- Mostel's tragic role is made infinitely more moving by the fact that he himself actually was blacklisted in the 'Fifties, as were the film's director, Martin Ritt, the screenwriters and several of other participants, many of whom star as characters in the film. Their firsthand experience with the cruelty and absurdity of this dark era in showbiz history comes through loud and clear, as they skewer the suits and sleazes who had ruined their careers decades earlier. The film's drama and comedy are not sacrificed to the political message, however, and this is a thoroughly entertaining, emotionally moving film. Highly recommended!
"My Favorite Wife" (RKO, 1940)
A genuinely bizarre screwball comedy, starring Cary Grant as a man who has just remarried after his wife (Irene Dunne) has been declared legally dead, having gone missing for several years following a shipwreck in the Pacific. Naturally, she shows up the very same day, only to find her beloved hubby remarried and the kids all grown up, with no idea she's their mom. But, for some reason, neither Grant nor Dunne can muster the courage to tell anyone right away what has gone wrong (it'd be an awful short film if they did...) and though that aspect of the movie is completely implausible, the film itself is predictably fun. Several interesting aspects to the production... first off, Cary Grant is at his absolute most drop-dead gorgeous; just looking at him light up the screen makes up for any deficiencies in the script. Dunne, who I usually find unappealling, also looks pretty good here, as does Randolph Scott (who plays Grant's romantic rival)... I suspect the cinematographer is largely to thank; the lighting on this film was very skillful, and brought out the best in all these stars. Also check out the elaborate set design on the scenes that replicate the famous Awahnee Hotel, in Yosemite Valley... You can tell it's not quite the real deal... but -- man! -- is the set design impressive! Not the greatest film ever, but still a nice slice of fun, prewar entertainment.
"Sylvia And The Phantom" (1945)
A somewhat plodding and disjointed comedy-fantasy about a young girl (Odette Joyeux), who has a girlish romantic crush on the long-dead lover of her great-grandmother, a figure whose myth is central to her family history. Sylvia's father, a struggling nobleman who is pawning the furniture in his castle to throw a big bash for his daughter's 16th birthday/coming out party, sentimentally indulges her fantasies, even as he knows she must someday abandon them and join the real world. The great French comedian Jacques Tati stars as the spectre; he is in fact real, although no one can see him, not even the infatuated girl who loves him, and who has sat for many years gazing adoringly at the oil portrait which has housed his soul. I can see why this film has captured so many people's hearts over the years -- there are several touching, lyrical passages which are particularly human and warm, but overall the movie is slow-moving and clumsy, and director Claude Autant-Lara never seems to know how to build the momentum to a proper speed. Plus, Joyeux's performance is somewhat unsatisfying and uncompelling; you never quite buy her character, or see her growth. The film's worth checking out, though perhaps not as great as some folks would have you believe.
Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford in this fine, dust-caked adaptation of writer Frank Harris' memoir of how he went out West to become a cowboy, and how hard that decision proved to be. Lemmon plays the young Harris, a hotel clerk who foists himself onto an unwilling trail boss, and Glenn, the cowboy, rides herd on him all the way to Mexico and back. As Lemmon adapts to the rough-and-tumble lifestyle, he threatens to become a hard, heartless man, rather that the bright-yed optimist he started out as. It's a fine movie, an unusually frank look at life of the range, and a nice chance to see both actors step out of their usual typecasting. Recommended.
"Full Of Life" (Columbia, 1956)
A delightful, genuinely heartwarming comedy, starring Judy Holliday and Richard Conte as a young couple about to have a child, yet still struggling to define what their family life will mean to them, and Salvatore Baccaloni as Conte's broadly portrayed Italian Papa. Fans of Judy Holliday will love this film -- she leaves her "dumb blonde" character aside in favor of a much richer role; she gets some great comdeic moments in early on, acting out the clumsiness and moodiness of late-term pregnancy, yet also portrays a smart, intuitive young woman who provides the rational and emotional glue which holds her family together. There are a lot of subtle touches to this film; nothing is overplayed or hackneyed, and although it is set in the white-picket fence era of the early '50s, the issues addressed in the script will ring true for many viewers for decades to come. Recommended!
"Secondhand Lions" (2003)
Bleah. What a disappointment. The talents of Michael Caine and Robert Duvall are wasted in this so-so, semiabsurdist comedy about a young boy whose life is altered by the summer he spends with his two earthy, eccentric uncles, crusty old farts who claims to have been great adventurers back when they were young. The fantasy element is poorly played -- I think they were aiming for a delirious wackiness ala The Princess Bride, but it simply doesn't come across onscreen. Also, the ending has a rushed, clumsy feel to it: the discovery of what the boy grows up to become simply has no foundation in the body of the film... did the buildup to this revelation wind up on the cutting room floor, and no one bothered to adjust the rest of the movie to compensate? Anyway, it's a shame that a young-adult film like this couldn't have had a little more solidity to it. There's certainly a need out there for some entertainment that isn't all big explosions and salacious sex, but the studios still seem unwilling to give these kinds of movies the same sort of attention to detail as the latest murder'n'special effects extravaganza. Pity.
"D.W. Griffith's Biograph Shorts - Special Edition" (Kino Video, 2002)
An invaluable historical selection of 23 short films made by master director D. W. Griffith for the vibrant young American Biograph film company, spanning back to the dawn of the American movie industry. It's amazing to be able to see films made as early as 1909-13... almost inconceivable, actually, considering how many early silents have simply disappeared over the march of time. Plus it's a delight to see several future Hollywood heavyweights, such as Harry Carey, (a young!) Lionel Barrymore in their earliest film roles. That being said, the appeal of this collection is mostly academic, since the style of presentation is so archaic and comparatively clumsy that it's difficult for even the most sympathetic modern viewer to watch these short films without feeling some persistent twinges of distraction and boredom. The only one of these short films that isn't a bit of a chore to watch is 1909's "Those Awful Hats," a comedic film that takes a turn for the fantastical and still may resonate with modern moviegoing audiences, where the behavior of the strangers in the seats next to you is still a cause for consternation. Students of film will definitely want to check this out to see how the filmic storytelling vocabulary has grown, but as simple entertainment these relics may tax your patience.
"The Swimming Pool" (2003)
Charlotte Rampling stars in this odd, atmospheric, murderous mystery, in which a snappish, menopausal middle aged British mystery writer is induced by her publisher to avail herself of the use of French country house, and try to just chill out a little. When she gets there, though, she finds the house is also inhabited by the publisher's unacknowledged French daughter, a wild, uninhibited Gallic nymphette, who tries to make peace with her crabby new neighbor, and then just gives up and goes out clubbing every night instead. There are a lot of aspects of this film that make it appealing -- the odd psychosexual interplay between the two women, the constant misdirection by the filmmakers, and, above all, Rampling's tour de force performance as one of the strangest and most deeply flawed characters to hit the screen in quite some time. The first half of the film is the most unsettling and the best, but despite an unfulfilling (and possibly illusory) resolution, this is still a pretty captivating film... Nice to see the Europeans still make 'em like this!
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