Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for December 1-15

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

It’s December, and we’re well into the Holiday Season. Because of that, there are slim pickings concerning unusual entries on TCM this month. So, this will be a short – if not sweet – column.

THE STAR OF THE MONTH is Fred Astaire, a perfect choice considering the holidays. Many of us have seen just about every musical he made, and that’s what TCM is offering us this month. The Astaire Fest kicks off on December 4 and runs on each Wednesday of the month. As we’ve seen all this before, I’ll aim this at those few who haven’t. These are my picks for each day devoted to Astaire this period.

December 4: The pick of the lot if 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, (8:00 pm) his first teaming with Ginger Rogers, and the two stole the film and danced their way into America’s hearts. It’s actually a vehicle for star Dolores Del Rio, as she plays a rich Brazilian woman pursued by bandleader Gene Raymond. The highlights of the film as Fred and Ginger dancing “The Carioca” and the scene of dancing girls cavorting on the wings of planes. Other than this, it’s quite ordinary.

December 11: You can’t go wrong with The Band Wagon (11:30 pm), which was not only Fred’s best musical, but one the best ever made. For my money, it’s the best. Astaire is aided by a spectacular supporting cast, including Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabares, the great English musical star, Jack Buchanan, and the wonderful Cyd Charisse. The musical numbers are what is to be expected, accompanied by a witty script. For those who have not yet seen this one, it’s required viewing, while those that have seen it will probably want to see it again.


On December 6 how about Josef Von Sternberg’s triumph of style over substance, Blonde Venus? Marlene Dietrich stars in this 1932 opus as a nightclub singer who’ll do just about anything to support herself and her child. The film is famous for Dietrich appearing in an ape suit for the number ”Hot Voodoo.” Putting it mildly, it has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Also starring Herbert Marshall and Cary Grant in an early appearance. As with most of Von Sternberg, excess doesn’t necessarily equal success, but in this case it does make for some fun watching.

December 8: Beginning at 2:45 am, TCM is showing Robert Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), followed at 4:00 am by Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of ArcIf you can’t stay up for this excellent double feature, capture it on your TiVo. You won’t be disappointed.

December 10: Guest Programmer Patton Oswalt is featured with his first selection being Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of the funniest comedies ever made. From Ealing Studios in 1949, it features Alec Guinness in eight roles as members of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family, all of whom are murdered at one point or another by Louis Mazzini, whose mother, a member of the family, was disowned for marrying a commoner. As the D’Ascoynes stand between Louis and the Dukedom he so desperately craves, they have to go, and go they do in hilarious ways. It’s a film that never loses its satirical punch, with Dennis Price as Luis and the fetching Joan Greenwood as the greedy Sibella, Louis’ paramour.

December 15: Speaking of Robert Bresson, his 1959 work, Pickpocket, is being shown at 2:00 am. It’s a compelling story of sin, guilt and redemption as Bresson follows the story of career criminal Michael and what makes him tick. Like other works of Bresson, the reasons why Michael does what he does are by no means simple and clear; Michael is addicted to his self-destructive way of life and will only find redemption by placing his trust in another human being, in this case Jeanne, a woman who grows close to him after he returns from life on the run to Paris. Bresson gets us to wondering if this was his fate all along, the reason he came back: the battle between chance and destiny is a theme that permeates his movies. It is a movie that must be seen, so get out your recorders and catch this one.


TCM Underground, thankfully, has not been placed on hiatus this month, so there are some good pickings.

December 7 gives us a doubleheader of LSD films. First up at 2:00 am is 1979’s Blue Sunshine, about a group of ordinary middle-class citizens who become psychotic murderers as a result of some tainted LSD they ingested 10 years ago while college students. First they lose their hair, then their cool as they degenerate into violence. Future director Zalman King (9½ WeeksRed Shoe Diaries) is Zipkin, a lone avenger determined to end the epidemic. Look for Mark Goddard, light years removed from Lost in Space, as the Typhoid Mary of the piece. Also in the cast is Alice Ghostley. Is it bad? Oh yeah. But that’s why it’s worth watching.

Afterward comes The Big Cube (1969) starring Lana Turner (yes, Lana Turner) as an actress being slowly driven mad by her daughter and her LSD-pushing boyfriend in order to grab her trust fund. Contrived? Certainly, but it’s always fun to see former big stars reduced to starring in bad pictures for the coin.

If you’re up late on December 14 you might want to tune in the double header of Death By Invitation (2:00 am), followed by Incubus (1965).

Death by Invitation is a low-budget wonder, filmed by would-be auteur Ken Friedman on Staten Island. It’s the old chestnut about a resurrected witch who takes revenge on the descendents of her killers, only she decapitates them with an ax. We’ve seen it before in films such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and John Moxey’s Horror Hotel, only we haven’t quite seen it this awful, and therein lies the reason to tune in. As for Friedman, he quit while he was behind and later became a screenwriter, penning Heart Like a Wheel, Johnny Handsome, and Cadillac Man, among other works.

Incubus is a true wonder, with William Shatner in his last pre-Trek feature as a man encountering both good and evil demons. The dialogue is entirely in Esperanto, created in 1887 by Polish oculist Ludwig L. Zamenhof as a planned universal language. And until you’re heard Shatner emoting in Esperanto, you haven’t lived.

The film was written and directed by Leslie Stevens, the man responsible for creating the cult SF series, The Outer Limits.

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