Jul 25, 2019

Streaming Diary: Classic Films on Hoopla

The streaming services from my city and county library are one of my favorite sources of classic films. While not every system has subscriptions to services like Kanopy and Hoopla, many do, from city and county systems to universities. While I subscribe to a handful of streaming services, I spend most of my time watching discs borrowed from the library and films on Hoopla and Kanopy. I have plenty to keep me busy!

Here are some of my latest favorites streaming on Hoopla:

That Guy Dick Miller (2015)
The recent death of prolific character actor Dick Miller makes this tender tribute to him all the more touching. With a distinctive carved-from-granite face and a plethora of cameo roles in Roger Corman and Joe Dante films, among many others, pretty much anyone who loves the movies knows this guy. Here friends, family, coworkers, and the man himself discuss his turbulent, but essentially happy life and career. I didn’t think I could love Miller any more, but the man revealed here is a truly special human being.

Amphibian Man (1962)
The title of this Soviet fantasy flick led me to expect a sci-fi creature feature like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). While there are elements of sci-fi in this story of a young man who can breathe under the sea, it offers more romance and fantasy than chills. The Amphibian Man is not only a sweet guy, but also in love with a girl on land. It's a charming story.

Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
I always thought this would be the perfect film for whatever the 1930s version of a Goth girl would be. Fredric March has a deliciously dangerous take on his role as Death, who as the title indicates takes a breather from retrieving souls from the mortal world. His reason: a big crush on the moodily romantic Evelyn Venable.

Gambit (1967)
There are some things about this Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine caper that haven’t aged well, but it’s still an intriguing, good-looking thriller. Caine hires MacLaine to help him steal a priceless artifact from the wealthy, and savvy, Herbert Lom. In a long opening sequence, Caine imagines a flawless, sophisticated operation that fulfills his wildest dreams. The reality that follows is messier and much more entertaining.

The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
The impact of two performers as potent as Vincent Price and George Sanders playing brothers in this very loose adaptation of the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne book was almost more than I could process. It’s no surprise that Margaret Lindsay gets a bit lost here, though she is nevertheless effective herself in an unusually substantial dramatic lead.

The Red House (1947)
After struggling for years to view this beautifully bizarre country Gothic on horrible public domain prints, it is such a revelation to see a restored version. Starring Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson as brother and sister and Rory Calhoun and Julie London as the hottest twenty-something teen lovers ever, there’s a lot going on in this suspense thriller about a dark, hidden family history.

Jul 23, 2019

On DVD: Judith Anderson is Lady Scarface (1941)

Lady Scarface (1941) is entertaining, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of its title and star. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, I went into this crime thriller expecting Judith Anderson to dominate the action as the titular criminal. This was not the case, and it was hard not to pine for what could have been.

A year after her career-defining performance as Ms. Danvers in Rebecca (1941), Judith Anderson is suitably tough and commanding as lady gang leader Slade. Every time she appears, there’s that electrical anticipation of things getting a little more operatic. She doesn’t have enough screen time to build her character though. You spend most of the running time wondering when she’s coming back.

I also couldn’t help wishing that this film had been made in the pre-code era with Anderson still in the lead. As a less glamorous version of the kind of gangster character Joan Blondell played in Blondie Johnson (1933), she would have been dynamite. As it is, she only appeared in Blood Money (1933) during that era and didn’t really break into the movies until Rebecca, after which she alternated between film, television, and the stage for the rest of her career.

Most of the action revolves around a police lieutenant (Dennis O’Keefe) and newspaper reporter (Frances Neal) who are investigating Slade’s crimes. The plot full of mistaken identity, scams, and scheming is reminiscent of Wanted! Jane Turner (1936), a mildly entertaining thriller, but that film had a bit more sizzle between its leads Lee Tracy and Gloria Stuart. O’Keefe and Neal are cute enough together, though they might have been more engaging if, again, I weren’t constantly wondering when Anderson was coming back.

Overall this is an engaging film that moves along nicely, but it’s impossible to ignore that it doesn’t live up to its potential as a vehicle for Anderson.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jul 18, 2019

On DVD/Blu-ray: Martin Sheen in The Believers (1987)

Based on the novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde, John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987) is a horror thriller that tackles two favorite 1980s punching bags: Afro-Caribbean religions like voodoo and the wealthy. Martin Sheen stars as a police psychiatrist dealing with the sudden, traumatic passing of his wife who suddenly finds himself battling a religious cult with an unseemly interest in his son. I recently viewed the film on a new Blu-ray release from Olive Films.

The film opens with his wife’s bizarre death scene, which consists of a perfectly-timed sequence of horrific bad luck. It has little to do with the events of the remainder of the film, and could even stand on its own as a horror short, but it effectively sets a tone of dread which fills every moment of The Believers. It also has a sensational, over-the-top feeling which seems to be specific to a certain type of 1980s thriller and characterizes the shock moments throughout the film.

At the core of the plot is fear of faiths like the voodoo religion, also seen at the time in films like The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Angel Heart (1987). For the most part the film takes an incurious, one-note approach to the faith, setting it firmly in “other” territory so that presumably it is easier to view it as the practice of evil, selfish cultists. This is a world away from the more nuanced perspective presented in films like Maya Deren’s documentary featuring the religion, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) and that appears to be the intention.

Sheen first encounters the rituals of the cult following his return to New York with his son. While in Central Park, they find bloody animal remains and beads abandoned after a ritual gathering. In the chaos of the discovery, he doesn’t notice his son pocketing one of the mysterious beads. 

Sheen's Latina housekeeper (Carla Pinza) does notice the bead, in addition to other warning signs. He forbids her from performing the rituals, more "other" activity that frightens him, and fires her when she persists in her struggle to keep him out of the cult’s hands.

Not long after the incident in the park, the NYPD begins to investigate a series of grisly child murders that appear to be the result of ritual sacrifice. With guidance from a hysterical cop played with manic energy by Jimmy Smits (the cult took his badge, so he knows he’s doomed), he begins to research voodoo and the brujería-inspired Santería faith apparently connected with the murders. In his off-hours, he romances his landlady (Helen Shaver), who in one of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes becomes the unfortunate victim of one of the cult’s spells.

Eventually Sheen connects the wealthy class of NYC with the crimes and finds connections to the cult in his own life. It’s not a set-up that rewards too much thought. The Believers is best approached as a vehicle for thrills, which it does offer, if on a somewhat uneven basis. It will appeal most to those who love that particular kind of paranoid, sensational thriller that thrived in the eighties.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

Jul 16, 2019

On Blu-ray: Richard Roundtree in Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973)

I was thrilled when Warner Archive announced it would be releasing the two sequels to the original Shaft (1971): Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973) on Blu-ray. I’d wanted to see these films for years. They ended up being interesting viewing and not what I expected when it came to plot and style.

Both films look great, because the restorations didn’t iron out the grain that gives these films added warmth and grit. I know it shouldn’t surprise me that a Gordon Parks film would be so gorgeous, his visual skill as photographer and filmmaker are immense, but I was especially stunned by the color composition in Shaft’s Big Score. These films will always be filed under Blaxploitation, but they are really gorgeously-produced, high-quality action films and the Blu-rays reveal that beautifully.

The John Shaft in these sequels is still tough, charismatic and resourceful, but the character doesn’t have the same edge. There was always a flicker of righteous anger in the 1971 Shaft. You don’t see the man who walks through traffic shouting at taxi cabs here. He’s more serene and much nicer to the ladies too. While I missed the zing of that brand of Shaft, it was interesting to see Roundtree develop the character and move him subtly in a different direction.

Shaft’s Big Score was my favorite of the two films. It’s got a slow build up, and lacks the riveting, gritty street-bound feel of the original, but it entertains in its own slick way. Roundtree seems more settled into the action hero mold and more appealing because of his gentler take on relating to the female sex. He even relies on one of his ladies to take the wheel during the climactic chase scene, which becomes increasingly ridiculous, and entertaining, as it progresses.

That chase scene is emblematic of what makes Shaft’s Big Score different. It’s less a document of a man working in the streets and more about building up to blood-pumping action. Roundtree is able to stay true to the essence of John Shaft, but when you add a boat and a helicopter to your chase scenes, it is definitely a different game.

Keep your eyes open during the casino scene to see the always distinguished director Parks in a cameo.

Shaft Goes to Africa is my least favorite of the original trio, but I appreciated the willingness to try something new with the character. It was a good gamble to assume that Roundtree was the true draw of the series and that he was versatile enough to play Shaft in a different milieu. Here, instead of a street-smart private dick, he’s more of a Bond-type hero fighting against human trafficking in Africa. There’s even a Q-like scene where he gets a custom-made weapon.

This film never quite falls into a rhythm though. Its story always feels a bit scattered. There are many good to great moments, but they don’t flow together. Many of the great moments are due to Vonetta McGee, who matches the charisma of her leading man and is the strongest female character to grace the series.

Overall, the original Shaft series fascinates me. Roundtree consistently proves his ability to mesmerize in any circumstances and he benefits from the essentially high production values and strong direction he receives here. While they vary in quality, there isn’t a bad film in the bunch.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jul 11, 2019

Streaming Diary: 8 Classic Films to Watch on Kanopy

Lately I’ve found the free library service Kanopy to be a satisfying destination for streaming classic films. In addition to offering a significant number of Criterion Collection releases, it offers an intriguing mix of Hollywood and international classics. Here are some of my favorites. All titles link to the film:

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Alec Guinness plays an astonishing nine members of the wealthy D'Ascoyne clan in this dark comedy about an aspiring gentleman (Dennis Price) who plots to kill all of them because he is next in line for the family fortune. He is desperately in love with the sensuous Sibella, played by Joan Greenwood with that purr of a voice that always melts men into a puddle at her feet. As impressive as Guinness’ accomplishment is here, it is Greenwood who weaves the most enduring spell.

The Queen of Spades (1949)

This haunting fantasy-horror drama of greed and destruction was long thought lost when it was rediscovered and restored in 2009. Anton Walbrook is a working class soldier in 1800s Russia who seeks wealth and revenge against the ruling class by attempting to steal a card game trick from an elderly countess (Edith Evans). She refuses to share her hard-won secret, for she sold her soul to the devil to get it. There’s spooky feel of dread to the entire film which sharpens as what has essentially played as a drama slowly slides into the supernatural.

The Sissi Trilogy: 
Sissi (1955) 
Sissi: The Young Empress (1956)
Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
It took me way too long to watch the effortlessly charming Romy Schneider in her breakout role as Empress Elizabeth ("Sissi") of Austria. Being able to finally see the trilogy on Kanopy was the moment I realized what an excellent addition to my viewing rotation this service was going to be. This cheerful, brilliantly-colored take on the royals of Habsburg has very little to do with the despair and scandal-ridden life of the real Sissi and company, but audiences have embraced the way it polishes history and it is a hugely entertaining series.

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)
Jean-Pierre Melville takes on film noir in an American setting with this lightly-developed story of a French reporter and photographer searching Manhattan for a missing French UN delegate. The story and performances are only somewhat compelling, but the location photography in mid-century New York City elevates it in every way.

That Man from Rio (1964) and Up to His Ears (1965)
Though I’ve seen Jean-Paul Belmando in all kinds of films, I never took him for a comic action hero. After watching him in this pair of funny, romantic adventure flicks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the kind of role he was born to play. In both films he plays an essentially ordinary man thrown into a dangerous quest in an exotic location. His romantic lead in That Man from Rio is the radioactively charming Françoise Dorléac, who practically steals the movie. Ursula Andress is less charismatic as his female sidekick in Up to His Ears, though she does have more comedic skill that she’s generally given credit for. Supposedly Steven Spielberg found inspiration for the Raiders of the Lost Ark in Rio and that essentially describes the spirit of the films.

Jul 9, 2019

On DVD/Blu-ray: Annette and Frankie in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)

In a lot of ways How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) is a typical beach film. It’s got you-couldn’t-do-that-today lady ogling, horny, but ultimately unsuccessful beach boys, cheerful musical outbursts, and a sprinkling of old Hollywood stars that were presumably meant to draw parents to the movie theater. What makes it fascinating is the way it adjusts the formula to accommodate the personal circumstances of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, here appearing in the last of the popular beach movies they made together. I recently enjoyed the film on a nice-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.

In their final pairing, Funicello and Avalon have only a few minutes of screen time together. Reportedly this is because Avalon asked for more money and the studio’s response was to cut his role down to what amounted to a beefy cameo. So instead of dancing on the beach together, Funicello pines for her man in California while Avalon is on naval reserve duty in Tahiti. There he has a witch doctor (the simultaneously cringe-worthy and amusing Buster Keaton) conjure a spell to keep her faithful to him, though he doesn’t hesitate to flirt with an island beauty himself.

Back in the US, Funicello lounges on a beach blanket, fully clothed, spending most of her time reading and eating. This was due to the actress’ pregnancy, which clearly ruled out a bikini. Instead, she flirts with Dwayne Hickman, who I will never be able to see as anyone but the unfortunate lad who falls victim to Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1946).

This is the kind of flick where you’ve got to switch off your brain and go with the flow. Goofy as it is, the relentless cheerfulness of the spontaneous songs, romantic entanglements, and classic actors like Mickey Rooney, Brian Donlevy, and Keaton create a sort of deluge of entertainment that is hard to resist. Even moments that should be excruciating, like the spectacle of a watery-eyed Keaton playing a Tahitian native of all things, are somehow engaging. This partly due to the charisma of the stars, but also because everyone is so fully committed to this bizarre world of constant play.

As a genre classic with a few odd quirks, this is lively entertainment.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

Jul 2, 2019

On DVD: Wallace Beery and Dean Stockwell in The Mighty McGurk (1947)

Wallace Beery picks up where he left off with Jackie Cooper in the 1930s in The Mighty McGurk (1947), a drama of an ex-boxer in the Bowery who finds himself responsible for a British orphan (Dean Stockwell). Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, if you didn’t see the extra mileage on Beery, it would be easy to mistake this film for also being a product of the thirties.

Beery is the titular McGurk, nicknamed Slag, retired from the ring and making a living as a bouncer at a saloon for the morally crooked Mike Glenson (Edward Arnold). His pawnshop owner sort-of-girlfriend Mamie Steeple (Aline MacMahon) keeps him from starving as he looks to open his own place. When Slag goes to retrieve Mike’s daughter (Dorothy Patrick) at the docks after a boat journey, he tips off her former love, and his former boxing protégé Johnny Burden (a young and adorable Cameron Mitchell). Mike sent his daughter away to end their relationship, but Slag approves of the relationship.

At the docks, Slag finds himself suddenly the custodian of Nipper (Stockwell), who has been shipped to his uncle. He is pressured into finding the man for the lad, but soon finds that Nipper would rather stay with him. While he deals with what he hopes to be temporary parenthood, Mike is up to no good, and Mamie is losing her patience with the commitment shy McGurk.

Every element of this movie, from the script to the 1800s setting could be dropped right into the 1930s and seem perfectly in place. Beery, MacMahon and Arnold could also have even been plausible in the same roles, as they would have had the chops to find the necessary world weariness in their earlier years.

The big difference is in Stockwell, who certainly had his cutesy moments, but for the most part was a more sober and realistic child performer than Cooper. He doesn’t have the same chemistry with Beery as Cooper did, but he’s also pleasant for being a little lighter on the sugar than the typical juvenile star.

Though I respect his ability, I’m not a fan of Beery. I’ve always felt that too much of his real life nastiness has always seeped into his performances to make them very palatable for me. He appealed to me here though. It’s as if age settled him a bit, making him seem more pleasant and shaving a bit of the ham off his acting style.

It’s a cute flick, briskly paced and essentially what you’d expect from taking a gander at the poster.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.