Thursday, September 20, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for September 23-30

September 23 – September 30


LORDS OF FLATBUSH (September 25, 12:15 am): This 1974 film about four members of the Lords street gang in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn growing up in 1958 is certainly no masterpiece. Like many other low-budget movies, it has its faults. But it also has a certain charm that gives me a nostalgic feeling every time I watch it or see a clip from the film. The four guys (two are played by Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler just before their iconic Rocky and Fonzie characters) are leaving high school and moving on with their lives. There are some very funny scenes of the group stealing a car and a personal favorite with Stallone, who plays Stanley, the toughest guy in the gang, buying an engagement ring for his girlfriend. After a jeweler shows Stanley and his girlfriend, Frannie, an expensive ring, Stallone's character says, with his girlfriend not in earshot, "If you ever show my girl a ring like that again, you know what's gonna be written on your tombstone? 'I was dumb enough to show Frannie Malincanico a $1,600 ring.' Ya got that?" The acting is solid with Stallone quite good. Winkler's role is small in comparison. You can see it's made on the cheap, but that's part of its appeal. The characters come across as authentic. They love the importance being in the Lords, but understand that it's coming to an end. Stanley gets married, and Chico (Perry King) gets to date the prettiest girl in school only to get dumped for being too possessive and immature. The storyline is secondary to the atmosphere of the picture, which does a wonderful job of capturing a time and place. A little trivia on this film: It was to be Richard Gere's movie debut, but he got into a fist fight with Stallone (the film's star and one of its co-writers) and was fired.

THE WRONG BOX (September 29, 2:00 am): This is an exceptionally funny film with an all-star cast featuring Michael Caine, John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Peter Sellers (the latter in a small but memorable role as an absent-minded docor). Mills and Richardson play elderly brothers, Masterman and Joseph Finsbury, respectively, who happen to hate each other. They are the remaining two members of a group of 12 with the last survivor receiving a very large sum of money. It's filled with great performances. Cook and Moore (England's top comedy team at the time) are outstanding as Joseph's nephews, particularly Cook. It takes a few minutes to figure out what's going on, but the storyline and dry wit are well worth spending that brief period of time understanding the characters and their motivations.


THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (Sept. 27, 5:45 pm): A color remake of 1938’s 20th Century Fox classic production with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. The original novella by Arthur Conan Doyle is rightfully viewed as one the classics of literature as well as an essential of detective fiction. Could Hammer improve on the Rathbone-Bruce original? Well, no – but they do come close – very close. Being as this was 1959, Hammer had the freedom to emphasize the decadence of the Baskerville clan in the beginning, which brings the supposed curse on the family. Peter Cushing makes for an excellent Holmes, second only to Rathbone. But unlike Rathbone, Cushing’s Holmes is much more obsessed and shows the ravages of his drug addiction more clearly. Morrell’s Watson is the usual Morell acting job: excellent, and gives the character more of a role than nearly being the comic sidekick, as Bruce played him. Even Christopher Lee, noted in his early days for his wooden performances, conveys an effective Henry Baskerville: honest, innocent, and despising of his ancestors. By all rights it should have been a hit. It did well in England, but here in the States, it was packaged as a horror film and double billed with other horror fare. But by all means, watch it. If not for the story, then for Cushing’s fine interpretation of Holmes as an individual tortured by not only his personal demons, but by his own logical method.

TITANIC (Sept. 30, 2:15 am): There have been many versions of the Titanic story, a topic that naturally lends itself to a filmic interpretation. But, for cinephiles, this is the best version. Not because of its virtues or flaws, but because this was made in 1941 by the Nazis! Yes, this is an example of the Third Reich, and in particular, Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda. This version tells the basic facts of the story, but interprets them in its own weird fashion. The British are seen as greedy capitalistic pigs (the reason they wanted the boat to sail quickly was to establish a new speed record and drive up the value of their stocks), lacking even the most basic of human kindnesses. And the only hero in the movie is the lone German crewman! Leave it to the Nazis to twist basic facts into new heights of absurdity for the sake of agitprop. The production was a troubled one: the original director, Herbert Selpin, happened to make some critical remarks about the German navy to his crew. Someone on his loyal crew dropped a dime to the Gestapo, and exit Selpin, to be replaced by Werner Klinger. The film was deemed too squeamish to be shown to already German audiences, suffering the effects of continuous air raids, and so the premiere was pushed back to 1943 and only in Occupied Paris. The film really didn’t reach a wide German audience until 1949. An ironic note: British producers incorporated the rescue scenes into their version of the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958). All in all, this is one not to miss.


ED: A-. This unusual, sensual, offbeat, almost surreal film is light years away from the style and content we came to expect from the later Capra. At its heart, it's a film about a Chinese warlord's infatuation with an American missionary, played so close to the vest by Barbara Stanwyck, in one of her best - and most underrated - performances. Yes, the warlord is actually Swedish-born actor Nils Asther in makeup, but if Capra had insisted on an authentic Asian actor, such as Sessue Hayakawa, do we even think this film would have seen the light of day, given the racial mores of America at the time? Let's be real. As it is, this film is an excellent, piercing look at cross-culture encounters. The scenery and cinematography by Joseph Walker are first rate, as is the script. Except for the usual overt instances of cruelty, so common a misconception about Asian culture at the time, the film contains a marvelous three-dimensional performance by Asther, who plays his character as a man rather than as a mere stereotype. The beautiful Toshira Mori, as Mao Lin, General Yen's concubine, also gives us a moving performance. It's a shame she didn't move on to much better things, but in the '30s and '40s she was an Asian in a Caucasian town. The subtext of passion lurks uneasily beneath the surface of the film, embodied in the person of Stanwyck's missionary, whose yearning for the General is neatly subconsciously repressed in her every movement and action. It's a movie that film buffs will not want to miss, and if you've never seen this, place it on your "Must See" list at once.

DAVID: C. This Pre-Code film is one of the first, perhaps the first, to deal with interracial sexual tension even though General Yen is played by Nils Asther, who is white, and the two leads don't even kiss. The plot is implausible while trying to be realistic. More than once, I said, "C'mon. You're kidding me." Barbara Stanwyck plays Megan Davis, who comes to China during its civil war to marry a missionary and rescue orphans. Talk about bad timing. She gets kidnapped by General Yen, a warlord who doesn't have a heart of gold. Davis is presumed dead allowing Yen to keep the attractive white woman with the sassy mouth in his palace as long as he likes. Despite the horrible circumstances that lead to Davis being help against her will, she becomes attracted to Yen. She is horrified - and strangely, turned on - after a mass execution ordered by Yen. Nothing says love like a bunch of people getting murdered. Even though it's Pre-Code, there apparently were some limits. We don't see the two doing anything sexual except a Davis dream that has Yen start to rape her and then become tender. This 1933 film seems to lose its direction. It ends with Yen, doomed to defeat, drinking poisoned tea with Davis willingly by his side rather than high-tailing it out of there after the general's army abandons him. But I have to give director Frank Capra and Columbia Pictures credit for the film's beautiful cinematography. It's too bad the rest of the movie doesn't equal the cinematography.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

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