Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cinéma Inhabituel for January 16-31

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


As many doubtless know by now, Dish Network and TCM have buried the hatchet - at least for now.


As the clock winds down on TCM’s Star of the Month, Robert Redford, we have one complaint. We would have liked to see some of his directorial efforts, such as his debut, Ordinary People (1980), and the superb Quiz Show (1994). Redford was a multi-faceted talent and his directorial efforts should have been featured as well. It’s something TCM should consider in the future for stars that have made the jump to the director’s chair.

January 20: A triple-header beginning at 8:00 pm with the lifeless Out of Africa (1985). With two pros such as Redford and Meryl Streep, and the works of Isak Dinesen as a canvas, this should be a slam-dunk. Instead it’s a dreary, overlong picture postcard that has about as much depth as a landscape from Sears and Roebuck. Redford gives one of his patented smug, distant performances, and try as she might, Streep cannot breathe life into this stillborn loser.

At 11:00 is the Redford-Barbra Streisand glossy, but shallow, nostalgia piece, The Way We Were (1973), followed at 1:15 am by the 1974 misfire, The Great Gatsby. For some reason, there has never been a successful adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, but this is probably the best of a bad bunch.

January 27: We close out the month for Redford with four movies. Beginning at 8:00 pm, it’s the fatuous The Candidate (1972), followed at 10:00 pm by the superb All the President’s Men (1976). At 12:30 am, it’s the interesting espionage thriller Three Days of the Condor from 1975. Think about the plot too long, and the movie falls apart. But for all the nonsense, it’s quite entertaining. 

Finally, at 2:45 am, it’s the unjustly overlooked actioner, Downhill Racer (1969), with Redford as a world-class Olympic skier whose desire for fame and victory hurts everyone around him. Director Michael Ritchie, here in his movie debut, does the smart thing by avoiding any hint of sentimentality or romanticizing its egotistical hero in his quest for everlasting Olympic fame. Even those who don’t care for skiing will be captured by both the look and the pace of this film.


TCM continues with its tribute to films written by Neil Simon.

January 16: The only decent film airing tonight is at 8:00 pm - 1977’s The Goodbye Girl. The usual warm and hilarious mix Simon gives us in films such as these is bolstered by two strong performances from leads Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss. Chapter Two (1977) at 10:00 pm, and Only When I Laugh (1981) at 12:15 am are more maudlin than funny. Joan Hackett is the best thing about the latter.

January 23: This night is marked with three good films. First up at 8:00 pm is Lost In Yonkers, from 1993. It’s a decent adaptation of his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and the direction from Martha Coolidge almost makes us forget we are watching a filmed play. Watch it, though, for the great performances from Mercedes Ruehl and Irene Worth, who reprise their Broadway roles.

At 10:00 pm, it’s Biloxi Blues (1988), based on Simon’s wartime experiences; during which he never left Mississippi before the war ended. Matthew Broderick is solid as Simon’s alter ego, Eugene Jerome, but it’s Christopher Walken, as Sergeant Toomey, and Corey Parker, as Arnold B. Epstein, who walk away with film.

Seems Like Old Times (1980) at midnight is better suited as a made-for-television movie. Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn try to recapture the chemistry of their 1978 film, Foul Play, but they come up a cropper, as does the film. Ah, but the night’s not done for yet. Following at 2:00 is a comedy classic, The Sunshine Boys (1975). Based on the real life vaudeville legends Smith and Dale, George Burns and Walter Matthau are retired comics Al Lewis (Burns) and Willy Clark (Matthau) who are reunited by Willy’s nephew Ben (Richard Benjamin) for a TV special. The only glitch is that Al and Willy can’t stand to be in the same room together. It makes for a funny premise and an even funnier movie. Jack Benny was originally cast as Lewis, but when he fell ill to the pancreatic cancer that would take his life, Burns stepped and did a fabulous job.

January 30: The spotlight on Neil Simon ends tonight on a high note. At 8:00 pm, it’s The Heartbreak Kid from 1972, starring Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd and Jeanne Berlin. Grodin is Lenny, a man who just married Lila (Berlin) and is already regretting it on their drive down to Miami Beach for their honeymoon. She smears egg salad all over her face while eating a sandwich in the car. She sings the same annoying songs over and over. And perhaps worst of all, she has saved herself for the wedding night. Once in Miami Beach, Lila is badly sunburned and is confined to their hotel room. On the beach alone, Lenny meets a blond Nordic goddess from Minnesota named Kelly. Lenny flops head over heels in love, resolving that he must divorce Lila, and travel to Minnesota to marry this divine creature. Elaine May does a terrific job of directing, moving away from Simon’s script at times to add touches of her own. The leads do a wonderful job, especially Berlin, who happens to be May’s daughter.

Following at 10:00 pm is The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1974), starring Jack Lemmon as a suddenly unemployed executive who has a nervous breakdown, and Anne Bancroft as his understanding wife. Getting laughs out of a situation such as this is hard slogging, but Simon, to his credit, manages to pull it off. Lemmon and Bancroft have great chemistry together and make the situation totally believable. Look for the young Sylvester Stallone as a mugger Lemmon encounters in the park. It’s the film’s funniest moment.


January 18: A good double-header of Japanese director Koreyoshi Kurahara begins at 2:15 am with The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no kisetsu, 1960). 

Compared by critics to the Nicholas Ray’s JD classic Rebel Without a Cause and Godard’s New Wave classic Breathless, Kurahara’s film is much more nihilistic in outlook and execution. Akira (Tamio Kawachi) and his prostitute girlfriend Fumiko  (Noriko Matsumoto) are arrested and sent to jail after being fingered by a reporter for fleecing tourists. Upon his release, Akira reconnects with Fumiko. They spot the reporter with his artist fiancée, run over the reporter with a stolen sports car and abduct the fiancée to a remote beach where Akira rapes her. Things will become much more complicated after this, and to go on will not only give away the plot, but take up another three pages. It is a stark, shocking movie, with the youths moving violently and speaking in grunts, screams, whistles and sound effects. Akira’s opening line to women is usually “Wanna get laid?” The film marked the new directions Japan’s filmmakers were exploring and stands as a seminal film in Japan’s New Wave.

Following at 4:00 is Kurahara’s 1957 effort, I Am Waiting (Ore Wa Matteru Ze). This is as different from The Warped Ones as night from day. It’s a crime drama about two lost souls. Joji (Yujiro Ishihara) is a retired boxer. Saeko (Mie Kitahara) is a cabaret singer who has lost her voice and is running away from her gangster employer. They meet one night by the waterfront, where she may have been thinking of suicide. What the viewer thinks may be a romance turns instead into a noir with Joji looking for his brother, who was on his way to Brazil to buy a farm, but has not been heard from since. It’s a well-written, finely directed effort from Nikkatsu whose crime dramas in the late ‘50s came to be known as “Nikkatsu Noir.” It takes a few minutes to get going, but once it does, the viewer will be hooked.

January 20: At 3:00 pm one of the seminal films from the ‘50s airs: Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. For those who somehow haven't viewed this one, this is a good chance to see what you’ve been missing. This 1957 production did middling box office when released, and until TCM dug it up in the last three years or so, was rarely, if ever, shown on television. I remember seeing it for the first time back around 1962 or 63. Once a month, Channel 2’s The Late Show in New York City would be pre-empted for what was called The Schaefer Award Theatre, which showed critically-acclaimed films with limited commercial interruption. For a 10-year old who only watched horror films, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and the antics of the Bowery Boys, this was amazing, to say the least. First off, it starred Andy Griffith as a bad guy. Sheriff Taylor! Will Stockdale! Not only was he a heel, but also a totally despicable heel at that, one that totally fooled the public until Patricia Neal pulled the plug on him. It disappeared from sight sometime in the mid-60s, I believe, and I didn’t see it again until Channel 9 aired it in 1980. By this time I was married and told my wife we have to watch this together. Her reaction was the same as mine back in 1963. She wondered where this film had been all that time, as did I. Given its plot about a down and out hobo who rises to become America’s unofficial “down home country” philosopher while enjoying a career carefully crafted by Madison Avenue, it was ahead of its time concerning the power of television to manipulate under the guise of entertainment. It was Griffith’s film debut and his performance was good enough to merit a Best Actor Award, yet he wasn’t even nominated, partly because the film died at the box office and partly because of Elia Kazan’s unwarranted reputation among Hollywood’s elite. It’s one of the films I would show to a film class and one everyone should not only see, but heed as well.

January 25: Speaking of seminal films, at the wee hour of 3:00 am airs one of the greatest films ever made, in my opinion: Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). As with other Ozu masterpieces, the film is built around a simple premise: the visit of an elderly couple to their children in Tokyo. But behind the premise is a poignant critique of the diminishing role of the elderly in Japanese society and how the postwar industrialization helped make it possible in a society that always held the highest respect for its elders. Ozu was no fan of the Western culture imposed upon Japan by America after World War II, and there are several scenes that show how this influence is changing Japanese society, and not for the better. For those who have not yet seen it, it’s a must, to say the least.

January 26: It’s a rare treat for the cinephile as the evening is being given over to the films of director Luis Bunuel. Bunuel was a master of the sardonic, his films noted for their questioning of society and its present values, which makes him a director to watch. Begin at 8:00 pm with Belle de Jour (1968). At 10:00 pm, it’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), followed at midnight by my favorite, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), a satire of fascism, Bunuel Style, with the always sexy Jeanne Moreau. Rounding out the evening are Viridiana (1961), his critique of religious charity taken to extremes, which was banned in Spain and Italy, and The Exterminating Angel (1962), an exercise in surrealism where the guests at a posh dinner party find themselves unable to leave the drawing room after the meal.

January 31: A night of John Barrymore begins at 8:00 pm with Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy, Twentieth Century (1934). Barrymore is brilliant as a theatrical director who tries to win back the star (Carole Lombard) he created and then drove away. At 9:45, it’s Counsellor-at-Law (1933), with Barrymore as a successful lawyer who must come to terms with his wife’s infidelity and his own dark past. At 11:15 pm, it’s one of Barrymore’s best, Topaze (1933). He’s an honest, yet naive French science teacher who loses his job because he won’t pass the lazy son of an influential industrialist. After inventing a dubious “health” drink called “Sparkling Topaze,” he risks his integrity by marketing the product with a crooked businessman. But with the help of the man’s mistress (Myrna Loy), who falls for him, Barrymore has the last laugh. At 12:45 am, it’s the rarely seen Svengali (1931). Barrymore is a hypnotist whose spell makes his young charge, Trilby (Marian Marsh), into a renowned singer. Both the popularity of the George du Maurier novel on which it was based and the film itself, helped popularize the word “Svengali,” defined as a person with selfish or evil intentions who attempts to dominate another.


January 16: Three suitably psychotronic films are on tap today, beginning with the 1957 Columbia production, Hellcats of the Navy, the only film co-starring Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy Davis. Ronnie is a submarine commander who inadvertently causes the death of a romantic rival under his command. The object of his affection, naturally, is Davis, the future First Lady. But don’t go looking for any hot loves scenes because there aren’t any. No, all Ronnie and Nancy do is talk about why they can’t have love scenes. Seems they broke their engagement when he went to war. She thought he stopped caring while he wanted to be noble and spare her the pain of receiving a telegram if he was killed in battle. It’s as screwy as it sounds. As critic Michael Weldon notes: “The awkward love scenes between Ron and Nancy are chilling.” For us it means only one thing: entertainment!

Ron and Nancy are followed at 3:15 pm by the celebrated antics of Allison Hayes in Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958), and at 6:30 by the Ray Harryhausen f/x flick, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). All three films are directed by Nathan Juran. In fact, Juran directed all of the movies shown in the morning and afternoon.

January 17: It’s more of the Carry On gang at 10:30 am in 1962’s Carry On Cruising, where five incompetents replace the departed crew of an ocean liner.

January 21: We go from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous today. At 6:00 am, it’s John Barrymore and Marian Marsh in The Mad Genius, another take on the Svengali/Trilby formula from 1931 with Barrymore as a club-footed puppeteer who makes protégé Donald Woods the greatest dancer in the world, only to lose him to fellow dancer Marsh. And then ... at 12:45 pm it the train wreck classic Playmates (1941), starring Barrymore as down-on-his-luck actor who is enlisted by bandleader Kay Kyser to teach him the intricacies of Shakespeare. Read our article in this amazing film here.

January 23:  A day of Western begins with the classic stinker, The Oklahoma Kid (1939), with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart doing rotten imitations of cowboys in the Old West. We can tell Bogie’s the bad guy, as he’s all decked out in black, but the funniest thing about the picture is Cagney’s hat: it looks as if it’s wearing him and makes him into some sort of giant mushroom.

January 24: A night highlighted by the airing of the classic Blaxploitation flick, Superfly (1972), with Ron O’Neal as a cocaine dealer looking to pull off one more big score so he can retire from crime. Recommended.

January 28: A few oldies but goodies are on tap today, with three Lugosi classics to begin the day. At 6:00 am, it’s Bowery at Midnight (1942), followed at 7:15 am by The Corpse Vanishes, and at 8:30 am by Val Lewton’s classic The Body Snatchers from 1945 co-starring Boris Karloff. Then, at 10:00 am, it’s another Lewton classic, The Ghost Ship (1943), followed at 11:15 am by Maurice Tournier’s 1943 take of “The Monkey’s Paw,” Carnival of Sinners, and the 1945 Ealing anthology, Dead of Night.

January 29: As part of a memorial tribute to the late Rod Taylor, TCM is screening two of his psychotronic classics, The Time Machine (1960) at 8:00 pm, andThe Birds (1962) at 10:00 pm.

January 31: At the wee hour of 3:45 am, it’s the favorite children’s nightmare written by Dr. Suess, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, from 1953, with Tommy Rettig as a young boy trying to escape the clutches of his piano teacher (Hans Conreid) whose sinister plan is to enslave 500 boys to play in unison on a giant piano.

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