Mar 27, 2020

Writing Elsewhere: With a Friend Like Harry (2000) for Crooked Marquee

This week I wrote about the slow-burn French thriller With a Friend Like Harry (2000) for the film site Crooked Marquee. It's an interesting movie, because while it is in many ways a throwback to Hitchcock-style suspense, it has a lot of timely things to say about the way money can give one a sense of unearned power. You can read my take on this marvelous, unjustly forgotten film here.

On Blu-ray: Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane in A Little Romance (1979)

In a time where virtually the whole human race is feeling the absence of loved ones, the charming A Little Romance (1979) has become a more bittersweet film. When I recently watched the movie on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I appreciated it as a timeless tribute to many aspects of love and a timely reminder of the connections that we are fighting for now.

In her film debut, Diane Lane is remarkably assured as Lauren, an American teenager living in Paris who meets and falls in love with Daniel (Thelonious Bernard) a movie-mad local boy. Despite the instability of her life due to her mother’s (Sally Kellerman) multiple marriages and affairs, Lauren is intelligent and emotionally mature. When she and Daniel meet the charming, but mischievous elderly widower Julius (Laurence Olivier), they soon pull him into their plans to go to Italy so the two can have a grand romantic moment like the one he once had with his dearly departed wife.

A Little Romance dances between innocence and corruption with such a gentle touch that everything feels suffused with light. In juxtaposing Lauren’s innocent romance with her mother’s emerging affair with a sleazy film director, it reflects on the good and bad of l’amour, but always recognizes the overall intoxication of making a love connection. The sweetness of George Delerue’s score (his sweeping romanticism is unmistakable) helps to sustain the feeling of giddiness.

One of the most compelling relationships in the film is between Lauren and her stepfather Richard (played with elegant restraint by Arthur Hill). Both actors have that rare, remarkable ability as a performer to communicate deeply with an audience as they listen and react. They are more in-sync than the other characters, because they understand each other’s emotional needs and realize that fighting for love is worth risk and struggle. Hill helps his stepdaughter to keep her big love alive, while also ensuring that his own relationship doesn’t fall victim to her mother’s restlessness.

Olivier is dramatically less subtle than these two. His is a performance full of ham, with flustered outbursts, and outsized physicality. It could be a disaster, but Sir Olivier seems to be in on the joke. When the moment requires it, he can plunge you through the heart with the most poignant expressions of grief, joy, and compassion.

In a role that could have similarly made a buffoon of Kellerman, she communicates her emotional needs with a desperation that shows through her selfishness. In most films she would be a bad person. Here she is simply a lost romantic in need of direction.

I was moved to tears by A Little Romance. The sight of tourists enjoying the bridges and canals of Venice was immeasurably moving and heartbreaking given the situation there today. But I would have gotten misty watching this in any time, because the idea that romance is worth the fight of your life is profoundly beautiful.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Mar 24, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: March Roundup

This month I was especially impressed by the quality of the interviews in my favorite episodes. These are all lively, though-provoking conversations. As always, please share in the comments if you know of a podcast I should be listening to, even your own! Episode titles link to the show:

The Film Programme
March 5, 2020

In her conversation with director John Boorman, Antonia Quirke asks all the right questions. She gets the legendary filmmaker to open up beautifully about his craft, from the reasons he prefers working with digital over film, to how his partnership with Lee Marvin unfolded during the filming of Point Blank (1967).

The Film Scene
February 13, 2020

The Love Witch (2016) director Anna Biller has a wide-ranging conversation with host Illeana Douglas about her own work and classic films. I was especially interested in Biller’s comments about the death of melodrama and a sincerity of tone in films and why those things are important to cinema.

Cinema Junkie
January 9, 2020

I enjoyed the thorough exploration of the Italian Giallo genre in this episode. It’s a perfect introduction to the genre for beginners, but as a longtime fan of these films, I also found it an entertaining look at the history, tropes and flicks of this unique style of horror.

The Treatment
February 21, 2020

Sam Wasson is one of the best film writers working today. His books Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Dawn of the Modern Woman and a massive Fosse biography are addictive and impossible to put down. It turns out he’s quite a character too. He’s entertaining, insightful, and knowledgeable in this interview with host Elvis Mitchell, where they discuss his new book (to be reviewed here soon) The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood.

Mar 18, 2020

On Blu-ray: Natalie Wood in Penelope (1966)

I fell in love with Penelope (1966) when this candy-colored crime caper streamed on the dearly departed FilmStruck service. It’s got a stunning cast, led by the bright-eyed Natalie Wood and features a sprightly early soundtrack by John Williams, adorably credited as “Johnny Williams.” I was thrilled when the film finally made its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Wood stars as the titular anti-heroine, a former beatnik who is struggling to get the attention of her work-obsessed banker husband James (Ian Bannen). In an act of rebellion, Penelope robs her husband’s bank on its opening day. Police Lieutenant Bixbee (Peter Falk) immediately suspects this friendly society wife of the crime, but he is so charmed by her that he doesn’t want to make the arrest. Penelope’s therapist Dr. Mannix (a delightfully bonkers Dick Shawn) is likewise charmed by his unpredictable patient, though she has driven him to constantly slurping milk for his ulcers.

Though it’s all played for laughs, there’s a deep well of perversion and dysfunction at the core of Penelope which keeps its cheerfulness from becoming too shallow. Wood plays a woman with an impeccable veneer who nevertheless always seems to be screaming for help. It’s a situation similar to that of the actress who played her, though it doesn’t seem she recognized any parallels with her character.

Wood was coming out of a deep depression when she made Penelope and the production was a happy experience for her. Unfortunately her joy didn’t reach audiences at the time,who didn’t show up at the box office. The film gets criticized for being overly cute and silly, but it has a lot to offer, from that catchy Williams soundtrack and gorgeous Edith Head costumes, to its bizarre, but brilliant cast. Just having the highly excitable Shawn and the smoothly laid back Falk in the same film makes for quite a ride. Lila Kedrova and Lou Jacobi put out a goofy Boris and Natasha vibe as a pair of cartoonishly evil con artists and Jonathan Winters is a Me Too nightmare in a silent cameo as a lecherous professor.

I was especially taken with the pairing of Falk’s police lieutenant and Bill Gunn as his sergeant and right-hand man. The multi-talented Gunn, who earned fame as a playwright and is perhaps most remembered as the director of Ganja & Hess (1973), is so appealing in his small role that I thought it a shame he wasn’t given more to do. Falk was already trying on the wise, but cool stylings that he would bring to his most famous role as the television detective Colombo. The pair has such a fascinating chemistry here that I couldn’t help wishing he and Gunn could have made a series of films or a television show together.

While Bannen never seems entirely plausible as a man Penelope would adore, Wood has excellent chemistry with her other male co-stars. She has her best comic scenes with the neurotic Shawn, playing off his anxiety with an amusingly mannered nonchalance. There’s a more easygoing vibe to her moments with Falk; he’s having the time of his life watching her get away with everything and she’s happy to be a cheerful companion.

This is a delightfully entertaining film and deserving of more attention.

Special features on the disc include a short featurette about Edith Head’s designs for the film and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Mar 11, 2020

Book Review--Citizen Canine: Dogs in the Movies

Citizen Canine: Dogs in the Movies
Wendy Mitchell
Laurence King Publishing, 2020

Is there any other animal more beloved in the movies than dogs? For a while horses were in the running, but when you examine the past century of film, it is clearly canines who have dominated. In the lightly amusing Citizen Canine: Dogs in the Movies, Wendy Mitchell writes about the performances of sixty cinematic pooches in their signature roles.

Mitchell covers a satisfying array of films, from the silent era to the current day. Each entry has a photo, a brief blurb about the dog’s performance in the movie and its history as a movie actor, and a couple of bits of trivia.

The entries don’t run deep, there’s only so much you can write about a performing dog, but it was interesting to learn about the many ways different directors approached working with these animals. Some of them wanted elaborate tricks, while others simply wanted a dog doing its thing.

Mitchell’s film selection also covers a wide range of moods. We tend to think of dogs being in either sweet, sentimental movies or horror, but in film they have been in as many different scenarios as their human counterparts. There’s a lot of variety between Benji and Cujo.

I was amused to read about the different ways the dogs approached filming, with some of them seemingly eager to work and many especially adept at performing. Trainers have used creative methods to get the animals to do what was needed for the camera, the most amusing being a pair of glasses lined with meat and the trainer who had to shut himself in a coffin so that a dog would follow it in a funeral procession as if in mourning for his owner.

For classic film fans the usual suspects are present, including Asta, Lassie, Petey, and Toto. Dogs from older movies take up about a third of the book, so there’s a satisfying representation, even though most of the entries are for modern films. It’s a fun book; not appropriate for young children because of some the films it covers, but essentially light in tone.

Many thanks to Laurence King Publishng for providing a copy of the book for review.

Mar 4, 2020

On Blu-ray: Jane Russell, Richard Egan, and Gilbert Roland in Underwater! (1954)

When a film title ends in an exclamation point as Underwater! (1954) does, it communicates the expectation of spectacle over substance. This is the best way to approach this Howard Hughes production with marketing featuring Jane Russell in a revealing bikini she never wears onscreen. The newly-remastered film looks great on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive and it offered some unexpected pleasures that added to its appeal.

Jane Russell and Richard Egan star as Theresa and Johnny Gay, a happily married couple who go out to sea with Egan’s partner Dominic Quesada (Gilbert Roland) in search of treasure on sunken vessels. Russell is so hot for hubby that she refuses to let him leave her on shore, but their numbers are evened out by the sharp-witted heiress Gloria (Lori Nelson) who owns the boat they use for their journey.

Johnny and Dominic quickly find what they are looking for, but a ship full of pirates scraping by as fishermen gets wise to their discovery and the men want in on the booty. The tension that follows between these two groups is broken up by extended underwater search scenes, a trip to the beach, a sprightly nightclub outing, and Theresa’s pleas for Johnny to come to bed already.

The pace isn’t always as brisk as a good adventure flick should be. This is partly due to those underwater scenes, which can only be so engaging when you can’t see the expressions on the actor’s faces. When those faces can be appreciated, the action picks up. It also helps that Underwater! is a beautifully photographed film, which can be enjoyed to its full effect on the Warner Blu-ray.

According to actress Lori Nelson, she was originally planned to star, but Russell got the role when she needed to complete a contract requirement. It is a shame, because Nelson shows some spark, but is essentially underused here. Russell also has better chemistry with Roland, who remained handsome and seductive late in his career.

Having gone into Underwater! with little previous knowledge of the film, I was delighted to see the mambo musician Perez Prado and his ensemble prominently featured in a nightclub scene. It was a treat to see this marvelous artist perform in an extended sequence which offered ample time for renditions of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White and Rhythm Sticks. The tune for the former was also used effectively in the film’s soundtrack.

Underwater! isn’t a classic in dire need of revival, but it’s a gorgeous production and the appeal of its stars and soundtrack makes watching it an enjoyable experience.

A trailer for the film is included as a special feature on the disc.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.