Friday, 3 February 2023

Moonstruck (1987)

Director: Norman Newison
Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Stars: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis and Danny Aiello

Index: The First Thirty.

I’ve not only seen Moonstruck, I’ve reviewed it at Apocalypse Later, albeit a long time ago in 2007, but I found that my reaction to it in 2022 was very similar.

The older I get, the less tolerance I find that I have for characters who bicker at each other for no reason but to bicker, that comfortable space where they can unload the frustrations of their lives onto loved ones who aren’t going to punch them back. And, given that this film is about Italian Americans in New York, that’s all it is for a while and it annoyed the crap out of me. That the actors tasked with doing this are very good at it is beside the point.

Our focus is on Loretta Castorini, a frumpy bookkeeper played by Cher, who won an Oscar for her work, and she starts out the picture by accepting a proposal of marriage from Johnny Cammareri, played by reliable Danny Aiello. She doesn’t love him but she’s ready to train him, so much so that she politely talks him all the way through the proposal, needed at every step. When he gets it right, everyone in the restaurant cheers and they’re all set.

Well, Mr. Johnny—everyone calls him that, including Loretta—has one thing to do before the wedding: visit his dying mother in Sicily. At the airport, he gives her a card and asks her to call the number on it. Ask for Ronny. Invite him to the wedding. It’s his younger brother, they haven’t spoken for five years and it’s too long for bad blood.

Because she’s utterly reliable, Loretta takes care of that awkward task and we’re really off and running because, even though the script muses on love through a slew of characters in an ensemble fashion, the central strand is all about Loretta and Ronny. And, as unlikely as it might seem, Cher’s love interest is played by Nicolas Cage. It’s a big leap from Valley Girl.

Thursday, 2 February 2023

The Guilty (1947)

Director: John Reinhardt
Writer: Robert Presnell, Sr., based on the short story Two Men in a Furnished Room by Cornell Woolrich
Stars: Bonita Granville, Regis Toomey and Don Castle

Index: 2023 Centennials.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me with classic film is that it’s consistently not crap. Yes, there are exceptions but you have to dig to find them, because even the poverty row studios people thought of as cheap cinema, because of their low budgets, turned out consistently decent product. Just compare a modern studio like the Asylum to a classic one like Monogram and you’ll be shocked at the difference. The Guilty was one of over thirty pictures that Monogram churned out in 1947 but it was probably the only one to be produced by a millionaire. Jack Wrather ran his family’s oil company in Texas, married a senator’s daughter and commanded an air group of Marines in the Philippines. Then, having divorced Molly O’Daniel, he settled down with former child star Bonita Granville, whom he met on this film, before moving into television, producing Lassie and The Lone Ranger. But I’m watching for her rather than him, because she would have been a hundred years old today.

Granville was past her peak at this point, still best known for playing Nancy Drew in four B-movies in the late thirties, but she was a talented actress who continued to do good work. Case in point: this movie, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, prolific pulp crime writer whose work had already been adapted to The Leopard Man and would soon be adapted to Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Rear Window, to name just three notable classics. Granville doesn’t just play one role but two, a pair of identical twins with different outlooks on life. They also very much don’t get along, especially given that they’re both after the same man, Johnny Dixon. And so Granville plays a bad girl, Estelle Mitchell, who used to be with Johnny until he dumped her for two-timing him, and she also plays her good girl sister Linda Mitchell, who’s been murdered before the film begins. We learn what happened in flashback, through the avatar of Mike Carr, who was Johnny’s roommate and is also sweet on Linda. What a tangled web they weave!

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Mist in the Valley (1923)

Director: Cecil M. Hepworth
Writer: George Dewhurst, based on the novel by Dorin Craig
Stars: Alma Taylor, G. H. Mulcaster and James Carew

There are a lot of things to say about Mist in the Valley, a feature directed by one of the true pioneers of film in the United Kingdom, Cecil M. Hepworth, for his own company, Hepworth Picture Plays, but the first has to be that it has little resemblance to the synopsis that’s stuck to it almost everywhere that it’s mentioned on the internet, including at IMDb.

Here’s what it says: “An ex-nun weds an amnesia victim and is framed for killing her usurping uncle who posed as her father.”

So let’s dissect that.

Margaret Yeoland is not an ex-nun. She’s a young lady who was brought up in a convent, which isn’t the same thing. She’s the happiest girl there, we’re told, but she’s leaving for her father’s estate in Devonshire because he wants her to come home. She’s looking forward to it but is disappointed when he turns out to be an alcoholic who aims to marry off this sheltered young thing to her elderly cousin. So she runs away from the home she’s only just found.

Denis Marlowe (with the ending E) is not an amnesiac. He’s someone who “backed a bill for a friend” which turned out to be a bad idea. He has lost all his money, his friendship and now his fiancée, because her father didn’t like him anyway and certainly won’t let her marry him now. He decides to commit suicide by hurling himself into the Thames but he’s talked out of it, grabs some sleep in a rail car and wakes up in Devonshire.

Monday, 30 January 2023

Raising Arizona (1987)

Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand and Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb

Index: The First Thirty.

Nicolas Cage was generally panned for his creative decisions in The Boy in Blue and I was far from enthused by them in Peggy Sue Got Married, though some critics admired his balls in playing Ronny in a way nobody else would. Here is where his creative decisionmaking hit the jackpot for me, because he’s simply perfect as H. I. “Hi” McDunnough.

I’ve seen Raising Arizona before and loved it. It doesn’t stand up quite as well to a fresh 2022 viewing, but it’s still a peach of a comedy from two favourite filmmakers, Joel and Ethan, the Coen Brothers. It’s surreal, which works well for a Nicolas Cage lead role, and it’s cartoonish in similar ways to Crimewave, a film they wrote but Sam Raimi directed. I adore Crimewave but acknowledge that it’s a highly flawed picture. This is better, not least because it’s focused.

Hi is a small time crook who’s inept enough to keep getting sent to prison for convenience store robberies, each time being routed to Ed to take a mugshot. The first time she’s military strict. The second time she’s in tears after her fiancé had left her. The third time Hi proposes.

She’s played in gloriously crisp fashion by Holly Hunter and she’s a great contrast to Hi. He’s tall, she’s short. He’s a crook, she’s a cop. He’s easygoing, she’s dedicated. It underpins the entire movie.

Of course, the two marry and settle down to a quiet and theoretically honest life in a trailer in the desert outside Tempe, Arizona. The only catch is that Ed wants kids but it turns out that she’s infertile. And so, in an act of poorly justified desperation, they see that furniture magnate Nathan Arizona’s wife just gave birth to quintuplets and figure that they won’t miss one of them.

Hunter is excellent here, but Cage is better still, in a role that he was born to play. Hi is a sympathetic fool, a man with little brain but much heart, a devoted husband who would do anything to make his wife happy. He also has a lot of depth, not least because this new crime births a dark side to his character that’s given form by a memorable Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb. The quirks of Hi’s personality were mostly scripted by the Coen Brothers, who were not open to a surrealist like Cage moving the goalposts, but he nails every aspect of the character.

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Middle of the Night (1959)

Director: Delbert Mann
Writer: Paddy Chayefsky, based on his play
Stars: Kim Novak, Fredric March, Glenda Farrell, Albert Dekker, Martin Balsam, Lee Grant and Lee Philips

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Not all people important to film are actors and not all of them had long running careers. Sidney Aaron Chayefsky, better known as Paddy from an army nickname, was a writer. He only has a short list of films to his name, because his early Hollywood experiences were far from positive and he preferred writing for other media, but he won three Academy Awards for his work, the only person to do so without a co-writing credit. He initially went to Hollywood in 1947, planning to become a screenwriter, and landed a job at Universal with the help of a couple of friends, Garson Kanin, a playwright and director with whom he’d worked on a documentary in London, The True Glory, and his wife, the actress Ruth Gordon. However, Universal rejected all his scripts and fired him after six weeks. He went back one year later after writing a play in New York that was bought by 20th Century Fox, but he found Hollywood a world that didn’t value writers and rewrote everything, so he quit and went back to New York, vowing never to return.

He did return, of course, or you wouldn’t be reading about him here, but not until he’d built a reputation on radio and especially on television, where he wrote plays that were performed on dramatic anthology shows like Philco Television Playhouse. Once he made it big with Marty, a 1953 Philco play starring Rod Steiger before it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1955 with Ernest Borgnine, Hollywood proved eager to adapt more of Chayefsky’s television plays. The Catered Affair was a 1955 play for Goodyear Television Playhouse before it was a 1956 movie; The Bachelor Party was a 1953 play for Philco before it was a 1957 movie; and Middle of the Night was a 1954 play for Philco before it was a 1959 movie. It starred E. G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint on television, a success which prompted a Broadway production in 1956 with Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands that obtained a national tour and that became this feature version with Fredric March and Kim Novak. Suddenly Chayefsky was a big name in film.

Friday, 27 January 2023

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Director: Francis Coppola
Writers: Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner
Stars: Kathleen Turner,
Nicolas Cage, Barry Miller, Catherine Hicks, Don Murray, Barbara Harris, Jim Carrey, Wil Shriner, Joan Allen and Kevin J. O’Connor

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s a film that both my better half and I thought we’d seen before, albeit a long time ago, but discovered that it was new to us. Why I have no idea, because it seems like the sort of film we’d both have watched, even if it would have been for different reasons.

At the time, it was a Kathleen Turner movie, at a point when she was a huge star and so was able to pick her roles, but before she got truly interesting in films like Serial Mom. Nowadays, I’m watching for Nicolas Cage, who is, as far as I could tell, the worst thing about the film. If I had been watching in 1986, though, and you’d asked me who would become a big star, I may well have told you Jim Carrey, even though I have never been a particular fan of his.

And, of course, it’s a Francis Coppola movie, sans his Ford middle name again. And yes, that does mean that Sofia Coppola shows up again as a younger sister. Cage has said that he had no intention of doing the movie, but his uncle asked so many times that he agreed, but only if he could be over the top. Which he is. He’s Crazy Charlie the Appliance King, the star of a set of over the top commercials for his family appliance company as an old man and also the owner of an awkwardly high voice as a young one, a voice that makes him sound like he’s on a dose of helium. He has said that he based it on Pokey in The Gumby Show. It was a Bad Idea and Kathleen Turner knew it.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

The Crippled Masters (1979)

Director: Chi Lo (Joe Law)
Writer: Unknown
Stars: Li Chung Keng, Chen Mu Chuan, Frank Shum, Jack Con and Ho Chiu

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Every now and then, I see mention of Blazing Saddles, the groundbreaking 1974 Mel Brooks comedy, and, wherever that mention is, it’s usually accompanied by two opinions: firstly, it’s still incredibly funny, and, secondly, nobody could remake it today. Now, they may have a point about that (even though they just did, as Paws of Fury), but The Crippled Masters never fails to spring immediately to mind as an equivalent. Even though it has an easy reading as a film that enables the disabled, it’s so outrageous in the way in which it does so that many would find it difficult to watch and I can’t imagine that anyone could tread this ground in 2020. I adore it and, even though it’s a truly awful film in many quantifiable ways, I think I always will, however many times I watch it. The basic idea is to cast a martial arts movie with cripples, a word I only use here because it’s the word used throughout the English dub of the film to describe the characters at its heart. That’s not just Lee Ho and Tang, the two crippled masters of the title, but presumably their nemesis, Lin Chang Cao, as well.

It’s Lee Ho we see first, losing his arms in a judgement by his boss. No, I’m not talking about heraldry, I’m talking about the severing of his upper limbs with a sword. Fewer than ten seconds after the opening credits wrap, we hear a scream and watch an arm fall to the Pluahchi crime organisation’s courtyard floor and, fifteen seconds later, his other arm joins it. We don’t actually see the act and the fake arms are props, but it appears shockingly real. This is a Hong Kong movie shot in Taiwan in 1979, after all. Do you think the production had a CGI budget? This is surely why there’s surprisingly little blood and no arterial spray, but the actor, Frankie Shum, is clearly not hiding his limbs inside his shirt or behind his back. It looks as if he just has no arms, only a flipper-like stub sprouting out of his left shoulder that looks rather like a mandrake root. And, crucially, this is because he really has no arms. Shum was born with thalidomide syndrome, which often leaves flippers instead of limbs, among many other deformities and health issues.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

The Boy in Blue (1986)

Director: Charles Jarrott
Writers: Douglas Bowie
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Christopher Plummer, Cynthia Dale, David Naughton, Sean Sullivan and Melody Anderson

Index: The First Thirty.

There have been a few surprises during my Nicolas Cage runthrough. The Best of Times was one for sure. That I’ve rather enjoyed much of what’s followed was another. And that it took him this long to make a theatrically exhibited dud is a third, but that’s exactly what it is.

Let’s start with a question. Cast your eyes at the poster above and hazard a guess as to when The Boy in Blue is set. That’s right! 1976.

Oh, sorry, you’re a century off. It’s 1876 and this is a biopic of a Canadian sculler called Ned Hanlan, who wore a moustache and not a Jane Fonda workout headband. Amazingly enough, he also sounded Canadian, given that he was, well, Canadian.

The problem isn’t just that Cage doesn’t try to approximate authenticity here, unlike the period pieces he had made immediately before it, it’s also that every other sculler in the film, and there are a bunch, look far more like Ned Hanlan than Cage does. He does a good job as a Californian surfer dude, which means that he kind of showed up for the wrong movie.

Monday, 23 January 2023

Storm Over Tibet (1952)

Director: Andrew Marton
Writers: Ivan Tors and Sam Meyer
Stars: Rex Reason and Diana Douglas

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Storm Over Tibet isn’t a particularly well seen film, because it’s not widely available and so I had to watch a low resolution download from the Internet Archive. I’m happy I did, though, because it’s a fascinating movie, even if Diana Douglas, for whom I’m watching, is only prominent in one of the three acts and a supporting player in another. Then again, that’s still far more screen time than she had in The Indian Fighter, which I watched first because it’s regarded as a standout role in her career. I’m not sure why, because she merely plays one link in an unrequited love chain, albeit a particularly fascinating one. Will Crabtree wants to marry Susan Rogers, who wants to marry Johnny Hawks, who wants to be with Onahti. Respectively, the parts were played by Alan Hale, Jr., the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island; Diana Douglas; her recent ex-husband whose surname she still used, Kirk Douglas; and the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli in redface as a Native American chief’s daughter. As unlikely as it might seem, this is a more believable picture.

It also has a much more interesting history. For a start, it’s an American remake of a German/Swiss co-production from 1935, a film called Der Dämon des Himalaya or Demon of the Himalayas, that was directed by the same man, Andrew Marton, who was a Hungarian by birth, as Endre Marton. He’d started out in film as an editor in his own country but moved around, working at various levels in a variety of others: plenty of editing in Germany and a second unit direction job in Austria, with his first film as a director in the U.S. in 1929, Two O’Clock in the Morning a.k.a. House of Fear. It was for the Germans that he accompanied a Himalayan expedition to Tibet in 1934, which is where he shot Demon of the Himalayas, with some of the other participants appearing in the film. It was released in Germany without his name on it, as he was a Jew and the Nazis wouldn’t sanction that. However, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels allowed him to make it, because the leading actors and the cameraman refused to do so without him at the helm.

Saturday, 21 January 2023

Birdy (1984)

Director: Alan Parker
Writers: Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr, based on the novel by William Wharton
Stars: Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, John Harkins, Sandy Baron, Karen Young and Bruno Kirby

Index: The First Thirty.

Like Racing with the Moon, Nicolas Cage finds himself in a substantial supporting role, where he’s playing second fiddle to the lead who has more opportunities to shine. Like Racing with the Moon, he’s the dynamic half of the pair, as Matthew Modine is calmer and quieter, even before everything goes horribly wrong at war, after which point Modine doesn’t even speak.

Where they differ is that Birdy begins with these characters getting back from war rather than ending with them leaving for one. It’s not the same war, because Hopper and Nicky were leaving for World War II but Birdy and Al get back from Vietnam.

They don’t come back entirely intact either. Sgt. Al Columbato, Cage’s character, has a steel jaw wrapped up in bandages that cover half his face, just like he’s the Invisible Man. Birdy only has minor injuries but there’s something wrong with his brain. He hasn’t said a word in a month at the military hospital, he won’t feed himself and he spends his time contorted into strange positions looking at the light shining into his window. It’s pretty clear from the title that he thinks he’s a bird.

We learn why in the flashbacks that take up much of the film. Birdy’s a pigeon fancier and, when he and Al first meet as youths in Philly, they spend a lot of their time catching birds and training them to be carrier pigeons. They even wear feathered suits so that the birds will think that they’re like them, so they can catch them more effectively. After that phase ends, because these flashbacks are episodic and so there’s always another one to move onto, he continues to be involved with birds, obsessed with the idea of flight. He dreams about flying and he even learns to do it himself, for a little distance, using an ornithopter, after launching himself off the handlebars of Al’s bike.

And so, given that he’s had such an abiding affinity with birds as a youth, is it surprising that whatever traumatic situation he ends up in over there in Nam prompts him into a major reversion into thinking he’s a bird?