Friday, December 15, 2017

Stormy Weather (1943)


The early 20th century was predominately white when it came to mainstream cinema, but there were always black performers working tirelessly, and even if they were mostly ignored by a lot of white moviegoers. It was in this environment where all-African-American movies such as Cabin in the Sky, and today's Stormy Weather found popularity ...

Dancer Bill Williamson is telling the kids of his neighbourhood the story of his rise to success, from being part of an army musical group in the First World War, to becoming a waiter, then getting a minor role in a show thanks to the sister of an old friend, Selina Rogers. She recognizes his talent, and is very friendly towards him. The two eventually form a relationship, but can it survive their hectic careers and desires for different lifestyles?...


Stormy Weather is...a movie...Kinda. It's hard to even be that generous. It's good for whatever is is, but I'm not sure one could classify it as a film, really. The majority of the runtime is comprised of song-and-dance numbers, with brief and fleeting 1 minute increments of plot every now and then.

Funnily enough, it was during the end of the framing story when I looked at how much time was left (24 minutes), and I joked that that time was counting musical numbers, so there's probably only 5 minutes of actual plot left. I thought I was kidding, but it turns out I was not only dead-on accurate, I was being generous! There's at most 2 minutes of actual plot after that point. Bloody hell!

The story we get is basically a biography of Bill Robinson, albeit with some details changed up, simplified, or left out altogether. What I find most surprising is that the man was born in 1878! I just assumed from watching this that he was a young man when serving in WW1, but no, he was already middle aged by then, and was 65 when filming Stormy Weather, though you wouldn't know it to look at him!


While it maybe be short, the rise to fame and the romance are decently written, with Robinson and Horne having sweet chemistry, carrying the thin story surprisingly well. While most of the people involved are professional singers, not actors, they all do fine jobs. As for names, we've got people like Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, and more. Certainly a load of pure talent!

Seguing into the singing, there are some great tunes here, from Jumpin' Jive, to Ain't Misbehavin', and of course Stormy Weather. Some numbers I didn't like so much. I also found Lena Horne's rendition of the title song strange in that she sang it in a more sombre tone, rather than an upbeat one, how I'm more familiar with Stormy Weather being sung. Still, she sings it very well, as expected for someone of her talents.


The dancing is great to behold from everyone involved, particularly Bill Robinson. He's a legend for a reason! Some moments are super impressive, and look downright painful at times! I sure hope these performers were insured. Ouch!

The show segments are put together very well, and look pretty spectacular. One cringeworthy moment is a comedy skit involving blackface, and to answer your questions, yes, the actors in question are already black, and yes, the 1940s were fucking stupid.

I mean it in the best way possible when I saw I recommend Stormy Weather for the music and choreography alone. They're top-notch for the most part, and the movie's not too long, so problems aside, it's a harmless watch...

Wonder Woman (1974)


Over the years, the comic character Wonder Woman has gotten numerous adaptions, from the Lynda Carter TV show, to an ill-advised attempt in the late 2000s that was never actually aired, one in the present day, and the often forgotten 1974 TV movie. It tends to be overlooked since it came right on the heels of the iconic portrayal the following year, and people often react to its existence in surprise. Some people (like me), take pride in being able to name Cathy Lee Crosby as the first actress to play Wonder Woman (saying Ellie Wood Walker may imbue you with a sense of amused devilish satisfaction, but it will also result in your violent death, so I wouldn't recommend it).

Meek secretary Diana Prince harbours an important secret-She's really Wonder Woman, America's top secret agent. Her services are required when books containing the names of all active spies are stolen from their respective countries by the sinister Abner Smith, and held for ransom. It'll take all of Wonder Woman''s cunning to foil his nefarious plans...


Wonder Woman is predominately a pretty grounded spy flick (that is to say, it's not exactly realistic, but it's mainly real-world stuff, rather than flying robot dinosaurs, or pistol wielding giant centipedes), and it's a fun one. There are good stakes, and a neat villain as played by genre great Ricardo Montalban! Perhaps the weirdest thing about it is how on an aesthetic level, it doesn't resemble the comics at all. The titular heroine has an entirely different costume, and if you removed the Amazonian scenes, you wouldn't even know this was part of the franchise. I don't blame the production team too much for this given the period of Wonder Woman's history this came in. The Amazons decided to move onto a higher plane of existence or something, but Diana wanted to stay with her beau, and was left behind on Earth with no powers. She found a wise old Asian mentor and learnt martial arts, becoming a snappily dressed spy. So basically the movie is like the comics of the time except with a noticeable lack of hallucinogens taken be the screenwriters.


The film is pretty kickass in its portrayal of a strong female character. No, she's not exactly a three-dimensional figure, but hey, it's just the pilot, and the only entry in the series as fate would have it, so it's not that big a deal. She always comes out on top, whether through strength or intelligence, and gets an absolutely fabulous put-down when the sleazy secondary villain tries a pick-up line on her.

The action is fun, but hardly convincing. Diana barely touches her opponents, and they still end up flung across the room. Other acrobatics are handled quite well (presumably with the aid of a stuntwoman). The acting itself is good all round. Crosby is an engaging lead, Andrew Prine works as the slimy second-in-command, and Montalban is a joy to watch as the affable villain. Other performances are pretty bad, but said actors' performances are mostly visual, so it's only on the rare occasions when they open their mouth that they come across as wooden.


There are some pretty decent effects here, such as the deathtrap room Wonder Woman gets trapped in. The matte painting of the outside desert in one scene is so hilariously fake, I thought it was a deliberate trap in the villain's lair. Finally, there are cute burros present, and that's worth a lot.

Wonder Woman's score is funkoriffic! The main theme also sounds kinda reminiscent of The Love Boat here and there (or should I saw The Love Boat's theme is of this?), and the musical stingers that come at each 'adbreak' are an amusing little treat, though almost wears on one after a while. They're the kind of touch that I could imagine really pissing viewers off if it was kept for the full series had it ever come to pass.


The 1974 Wonder Woman movie is an entertaining watch. It's not perfect, but it's a great way to spend an afternoon, and it's nice to know that it not making it to full series is in no way a mark of poor quality...

The Savage Girl (1932)


Eccentric millionaire Amos P. Stitch wants to have some exotic animals for a private zoo, and hires the studly Jim Franklyn to form an expedition to Africa. Upon arriving, their quest ends up with them stumbling upon a mysterious young woman, with an uncanny connection with the local wildlife. As Jim tries to communicate with her, Amos and his hired help Oscar try and prove the former's hypothesis that even African elephants with no prior exposure to mice are still scared of them. Meanwhile though, an ousted expedition member is plotting revenge...


Good god, is this film ever awful! The Savage Girl got on my good side right from the start due to its plot structure. With other 'African adventure' movies I've seen, the story has already kicked into gear from the get-go, but we still end up stuck seeing the characters amble around for at least 10 minutes of the often 60 minute runtimes. In this movie though, the leads are going to Africa for an innocuous reason, and then the main plot starts/comes into play once they're already there and the film has already set everything up! From then on, we get some amusing moments and characters, namely the U.S. taxicab ferried to 'Darkest Africa', and the not-so-local hired help Oscar, who turns out to be a New Yorker, yearning for home.

Unfortunately it's at the halfway point where the movie completely falls apart. The Savage Girl is found either by happenstance, or because the party deliberately trapped her, which doesn't bode well for their character. It's at this point where the German guy who was up to this point the voice of warning and reason undergoes a radical character shift into would-be violent rapist! Jim is thankfully having none of this and sends the guy packing after a good punch to the jaw, but then when the girl takes a liking to him, his response is saying she'd better leave, because if she stays, his libido would take over and he won't have any control over his actions. Ugh! Our hero?!


Besides this sudden ickiness, the film starts leaning more heavily on long shots of characters just standing around or looking at each-other, not saying a word. As decently paced as the first half is, the second becomes totally leaden. Barely any story is told from this point forwards, especially regarding the savage girl, who gets zero backstory, or even much of anything to do with the plot, which is instead focusing on the guy who wants to capture her her, rather than any story about her upbringing, home, status as jungle goddess, and kinship with the animals of the forest. Maybe the producers were worried leaning too heavily on those actually interesting plot points would be too close to Tarzan, and they'd get sued? Still, it's disappointing, because those questions would've been the reason anyone even came to see the movie in the first place!


The climax is a total let-down. The final battle with the villain amounts to just another fistfight. I was at first thinking the girl might be the one to defeat him, since she'd done nothing exciting before this point. Then as we see her monkey friend notifying a large gorilla of the danger, I remembered the plot summary I read that spoke of a killer ape being her protector! Awesome, so we're going to see the bad guy get the crap beaten out of him by this giant gorilla, right? Nope. He gets laid out solely by Jim, and the gorilla doesn't even show up until the fight's over, nabbing the villain when he tries to draw a gun. This is all in the final minute of the movie, too. Little care was put into this conclusion!

The subplot to The Savage Girl is silly and doesn't amount to much, but it's harmless fun. It'd potentially be an annoying diversion from the real plot, if said main plot hadn't been getting so icky! As it is, I frankly would've wanted Amos and Oscar to be the leads, since they're much more interesting, and that'd be less cliched than a gender-swapped Tarzan ripoff.


And what a lame Tarzan clone the titular savage girl is. She's so 'savage' she's easily trapped, and can't even fight off one pudgy guy in hand-to-hand combat. Wow, that's disappointing! Jim isn't much better. Being the man of the group in a 1930s film, he's the one who's given pretty much all the victories, but even that doesn't amount to much, and he's annoying at times. The villain feels poorly written an annoying. Swinging back to a positive, I liked Amos. Early on, when Jim asks about his potential new employer, he's told that "he's not to be trifled with or taken lightly, in spite of his usual condition. He's one of the fiercest men in America.", as well as "...eccentric, but very reliable.". He may seem like a pretty hapless comic relief drunkard, but these statements actually end up being true, as the moment he hears Jim and co. in trouble near the end, he doesn't hesitate to jump into the fray and save his ass. Amos totally saves the day!

Oscar is a good addition. I appreciate the thinking behind his character, as it's very against type. How often in these kinds of movies did you ever see African-Americans as part of the journey? Just a shame we don't get a deep insight into how he feels being in the land of his ancestors. Not that I was expecting that from an old 'Poverty Row' b-movie, but it would've been neat.


The acting is pretty stilted from all parties, with only a couple being just passable. Rochelle Hudson isn't hugely promising in the title role, but she may have had more of a chance if the movie utilized her more.

Two last things to note. The gorilla is presumably a fake looking costume, but given the crappy quality of the print I saw plus its lack of screentime, it was hard to tell, so lucky break for the filmmakers. Second, the movie opens with an amusingly flowery 'Editor's note', which gave me a chuckle or two.

The first half-hour of The Savage Girl is a fun enough watch, but feel free to switch off after that point, because it all kinda falls apart...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)


Esteemed detective Hercule Poirot is taking the luxurious Orient Express train back home from Turkey to England, hoping for a relaxing voyage. A secretive American businessman afraid for his life attempts to hire him as a bodyguard, but is refused. The next morning, he's found dead in his compartment, with 12 stab wounds. Poirot decides to take the case, determined to figure out which of the many passengers on the train committed the murder...


Murder on the Orient Express in one of Agatha Christie's most famous murder-mysteries, and for good reason. However, Hollywood took their sweet ass time in coming up with a movie adaption-Nearly 30 years! I think censorship may have played a part in that, for reasons, but I can't say any more. Or perhaps Christie herself was just that protective of movie rights.

The story is simple in its staging, but lauded for its details and complexity. It's kind-of the quintessential whodunnit in that regard. The movie is two hours long, but feels much shorter, going by breezily. To say more would run the risk of spoilers, so I shall seal my lips henceforth.


In regard to book accuracy, this film does a really good job! Some things were left on the cutting room floor, but everything important is kept, in the right order. The only real omission is the explanation from the guilty party at the conclusion, which clears up a couple of details, but its loss isn't too detrimental. One thing I really enjoyed is how the visual medium of film is able to give the story a much better ending! In the book it ends the moment Poirot finishes speaking, and while they're the last lines of the movie as well, we get an extended denouement with all the characters, all without dialogue.

Albert Finney's performance is great, but weird! He definitely brings the character of Poirot to life with much joie de vivre. Not sure how accurate his accent is though. It might be fine, though I can't tell. Anthony Perkins may be playing a neurotic young man with what could be seen as a mother complex, but doesn't come across like he's stepped right out of Psycho. Lauren Bacall shows definite range with her character. Ingrid Bergman came out of this production best, earning an Academy Award. Her acting in some moments feels a bit stilted, but that may well just be in line with her character. Particularly impressive is her interview scene, which is a monologue shot all in one take! And the rest are good. Simple as that. With twelve actors playing the suspects alone, and all of them big name, that's too many to get into! Overall, a movie comprised almost entirely of people talking is one that lives or dies on its cast, and this one definitely carries the movie on their shoulders.


The location is mostly confined to a train carriage, but it does look fab, and we get some scenes in  Turkey, and in the snowy alpine mountains. Really, this novel is an ideal one for a low-budget TV movie given how economically it could be produced.

The score is really good, with some big and dramatic pieces, lower and eerier ones with a minimalistic edge, and brighter tracks with emotion behind them, which complement the end perfectly.

*Should that be 'minimalist'? Eh, don't care, because it's too darn typical of English that following the clear language/word/vocabulary rules is the wrong decision.


Murder on the Orient Express is a classic book, and this adaptation is an equal hit! Loyal to the book, fiendishly clever, and with an ingenious solution, as well as very rewatchable, this is a great way to satisfy the need for a good old-fashioned whodunnit...

The Corpse Vanishes (1942)


Brides have been mysteriously dropping dead at recent weddings, and their bodies stolen. What sort of madman could be behind this? Plucky reporter Pat Hunter is determined to find out, with her sole clue being a rare orchid found at one of the weddings. This leads her to the doctor and expert horticulturist Dr. Lorenz, who's in the midst of working with the young Dr. Foster in order to help his ailing wife. Unbeknownst to Foster but suspected quickly by Pat is the doctor's sinister true motives...


Contrary to its exceedingly poor reputation, I really enjoyed The Corpse Vanishes! It's paced really well, starting off with two deadly weddings one after the other, and a solid progression of events from then on, like quickly introducing the lead protagonist, the villain, why he's doing what he's doing, and so on. Things continue moving well as Pat's clue leads her to the residence of Dr. Lorenz, and spooky things start a'happening.

The lead is fun and plucky, even if she is a bit callous. In fact, it's her delightfully ghoulish reaction to certain events that made me like her! Dr. Foster is a decent enough supporting character, even if the romance at the very end felt crammed in. Something I liked is that for the most part, characters believe what Pat has to say. Some take more convincing than others, but the relatively brief length of the film means there are very few frustrating moments where she's not taken seriously.


Dr. Lorenz, as played by Lugosi, is an effective villain, but feels a bit unclear at times. He's stealing 'dead' brides out of love for his wife (in order to use their youth to extend her life, naturally), which is a sort-of selfless motive, but at other points he acts just plain evil. I kinda wish the script fleshed him out a bit more, but it's a miracle his character is as good as it is already, given this is a Monogram cheapie.

The maid's motivations, and her role in the Doctor's downfall is set up quite well! I was a little disappointed with the execution though. The sudden reveal] that Rossito's character was also the maid's son is wholly unnecessary, as she already had perfectly established motivations, and the fact that Pat barely aids in resolving the climax is frustrating. That bugs me, but oh well, I guess I can live with it. What I can't though is the cringeworthy ending!


Coming to the acting, Bela Lugosi is of course great, while Luana Walters is an entertaining heroine, the ookily named Tristram Coffin is a serviceable 'sidekick', and the remaining cast members all doing a fine to merely ok job. Elizabeth Russel is fine as the Countess, but a bit too successful in being annoying at times. Her accent is ok, but it is amusing hearing her talking with clear effort put into every words she speaks to maintain accent, while the Hungarian Lugosi speaks effortlessly. There's a small role by Angelo Rossito (who I always get mixed with with Angelo Muscat), and he's used decently.


The dialogue in The Corpse Vanishes is mostly serviceable, and amusingly cheesy in places.
Pat: "New? It's sensational! Another kidnapping of a dead bride-What a story!"
Then there's the uber-romantic proposal between the two leads that have known each-other a grand total of a single day. Pat: "It looks just like a real wedding, doesn't it."-Foster: "Yes. Too bad it isn't...ours."-Pat: "Is that a proposal, Dr. Foster?"-Foster: "It certainly is!".
More utterly groanworthy dialogue to close the movie out: Boss: "You've got a headline to write after this"- Pat: "Do I get a byline?"-Boss: "After this you can get a clothesline, with my shirt on it."

The direction by Wallace Fox is very well done, with atmospherically shot sequences, playing around with shadow in a spooky manner.


The Corpse Vanishes is a highly enjoyable spooky time! It ticks all the boxes it needs to, even if it does have its flaws, and I recommend it if you want to watch some old-fashioned horror with one of the genre greats in a role at least slightly befitting of his talents...

Lucky Me (1954)


After a financial disaster, a struggling theatrical director and his performers (including the lead Candy Williams) are left on the streets, with barely a penny to their names. After getting into a fix at a high class restaurant/hotel when a harebrained scheme to eat for free goes wrong, the team is stuck working the money off at the establishment. It's there however when they come across the famous composer Dick Carson, currently in the process of putting together a new show. Meanwhile, Candy meets Dick through entirely different circumstances, and the two fall for each-other. After some deception is uncovered, she ends up with the lead role in his show, but as it turns out Dick already promised that to his girlfriend...


I quite liked Lucky Me. The story of  a down-on-their-luck theatre group finding the big time is a well-worn plot for a musical, and the comedy is a bit awkward at times, but it's a fun ensemble piece. Unfortunately I guess the writers decided they wanted it to be a romance, and despite nearly half the movie having gone by, a romance plot is suddenly railroaded in, taking complete focus away from everything else. Making things worse are the little details. Namely, the love interest  is a total sleaze! He's romancing the daughter of a rich oil tycoon in order to finance the show, leading her on, and promising her the lead role. It's hard to watch her fawning over him because you just know that as soon as he meets Doris Day's character, he'll ditch this current girlfriend. Sure enough, that's exactly what happens. He doesn't meet Candy as famous composer Dick Carson though, but due to a misunderstanding, he pretends to be a simple mechanic. Really?! Another Doris Day romance film that's based on deception? This is a bloody subgenre at this point!


Thankfully it's quite a short time before the truth comes out, and Candy hates him. She ends up falling for him again though, and devises a plan with her friends to sabotage Lorraine's chance at the big time, because screw her, apparently, despite her having done nothing wrong! She's the one being screwed over here by that sleazoid Dick! One silver lining is that while she does end up with him an the end, both having fallen in love in a matter of 48 hours, Candy does at least verbalize everything the audience is thinking.

Overall, I wish Lucky Me had stuck with its first plot. It was fun, and I enjoyed seeing an amusingly superstitious character navigating life in the world of theatre, As is though, the movie very nearly forgets that aspect to Candy's character even exists!


Coming to the musical numbers, they're...weird. What I mean is that about a third of them are the characters just randomly bursting into song, but the other two thirds are them singing tunes in-universe. This is why I'm not the greatest fan of broadway-set musicals, because the novelty of the genre is seeing people in normal situations singing all-of-a-sudden. In a stage setting though, you expect them to. This isn't a huge deal, and there are of course exceptions, but I just prefer normal musicals. Getting into the songs proper, they're decent. The opening track was possibly my favourite, and it's definitely the most interestingly directed. The Scottish Jazz one is weird, but that's mostly down to the terrible accents everyone affects.

The acting is all fine. Doris Day is a great lead, bringing her all. Robert Cummings is good for his role, and it's just a shame that role is as a complete and total prick. Phil Silvers is a delight, and Eddie Foy Jr. is fun too, unlike the last movie I saw him in with Day. Nancy Walker is entertaining, while Martha Hyer makes the most of her role as Lorraine.


Lucky Me is a fun ride. Not perfect, and bound to potentially infuriate at times, but it's tolerable enough, and I've had to sit through far worse over my love of Doris Day...

Calamity Jane (1953)


Another December and I've got more Doris Day movies to look at! With any luck I won't get any duds this time!...

Cowgirl Calamity Jane routinely traverses the untamed landscape, facing many dangers, and always telling of them to her fellow townsfolk in Deadwood, albeit with extra spice added to her tales. Meanwhile, the local theatre manager has hired who he thinks is a female performer (a rarity in these parts), but turns out to be mistaken. Calamity calms down the riled-up crowd by swearing to find the popular starlet they've all been pining for, and arrange for her to perform in Deadwood. Things go wrong once again when Calamity accidentally brings the singer's maid Katie Adams along. Not only does this cause turmoil with the townsfolk at first, but also creates a love quadrangle between Calamity, Katie, Wild Bill Hickok, and Lt. Dan...


Calamity Jane is a mixed experience. The story is a pretty standard western romance, containing many of the genre's tropes (as well as being quite unflattering to Native Americans whenever it deigns to mention they exist).

Calamity is quite an unlikeable character, and she's sometimes pretty unbearable. One thing I found weird about the character is how she exaggerates about her exploits, yet is still a legit frontierwoman who gets involved in real adventures/battles, and totally kills people! Why'd you need to exaggerate when you already live like that?! But then again, but apparently the real Calamity Jane was like that, so I guess this is true to life in that regard?


Given the conventions of popular fiction, you just know there's gonna be a point where the scruffy and tomboyish Calamity cleans herself up and dresses pretty, much to the shock of the townsfolk, who all now find her beautiful. That does happen, but it takes a surprisingly long time, and thankfully Calamity at least still acts the same, despite the change in dress.

There's one large hindrance to enjoying this movie fully, and sadly it's Doris Day herself. The idea of her playing a gruff cowboy is awesome, but she goes way too overboard in the role, affecting a voice that she really didn't need to. She speaks in this very exaggerated voice that got on my nerves, and I thought 'She couldn't possibly talk like this for the whole movie, can she?'. The answer is yes, she can and she does! It's annoying! It also doesn't do wonders for her singing in some spots either.


The rest of the acting is fine. I really liked Allyn Ann McLerie, and often wished she was the sole lead character. Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok is decent, but his character appears rather fleetingly in the first half, and looks friggin' exactly the same as Lt. Dan's Philip Carey! Bill is ok as a love interest, even if it is a bit frustrating that you know based on the vitriol they're showing each-other that Calamity and him are gonna end up falling for one another, even though they both already love other people. Lt. Dan meanwhile has serious trouble taking "No" for an answer when women are involved, which hardly endears him to the audience.

By the way, while we're talking about her, why the heck was she disparagingly known as 'Hollywood's oldest virgin'?! The characters she plays either have sex, get married and have sex, or are already married and have had sex, having raised a family. Add that to a lot of her movies being about relationships and/or battles of the sexes, I've no idea where the impression of her being virginal came from.


The musical numbers are likewise mixed. Some are quite good, others not so much, and others had potential but were let down by the performers, such as Howard Keel's too-deep voice (which sounds like it's being put on), or Day's gruff tone, both made worse by a 'sing-speaking' song at one point. I of course know Day can sing, so I chalk her sounding kinda bad to poor direction, and if I'm being generous I can say the same about Howard Keel. 'Ok Howard, you're doing pretty well but we just need you to sound a liiiitle bit deeper. No, deeper'.

The dance choreography is mainly isolated to the leads, while the townsfolk just stand or move around them in the numbers they're present in. The dancing itself isn't that interesting, ok but not fantastic, however the direction and staging is great! The Windy City number for example is all in one take and contains quite a few impressive scenes! Must've been a pain to shoot, but worth it.

This film is a convincing enough western, with good looking sets. It does become noticeable pretty quickly though that there are only a few sets and locations available for the shoot. It's not particularly egregious or cheap, but visible all the same.


Calamity Jane didn't really get off on the best foot with me, and there are quite a few things that annoyed me, but overall it's not that bad a movie. Given her not being at her best here, I hesitate to recommend it if you're a Doris Day fan, but if you're just into older musicals, or if you tolerate American westerns, then sure, you can give it a shot...