Saturday, January 31, 2015
THE IMITATION GAME is what I refer to as a "Oscar Bait" movie. What I mean by that is the picture features several of the usual ingredients necessary to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards, such as:
--the star of the film being British (or at least a native of a country belonging to the British Commonwealth)
--the main character being "different" in some way
--the story of the film being set in the past
--the story of the film having a connection with a famous historical event
--the film being based on a true story
THE IMITATION GAME really does deserve to be nominated for major awards. It is an excellent film, and a acting showcase for Benedict Cumberbatch as British scientist Alan Turing.
During World War II, Alan Turing helped break the Enigma code--the code used by Nazi Germany to mask all of their communications. For years the events surrounding the breaking of the Enigma code were kept secret by the British government, and Turing never received the public acclaim he should have.
In the film, Turing is portrayed as a man who wants to break the code because he sees it as a puzzle--and Turing is something of a puzzle himself. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as an eccentric genius, and the actor knows something about eccentric geniuses, having become a cult figure due to his role as a 21st Century Sherlock Holmes on TV. Turing was also gay, which would cause horrible undeserved consequences for him after the war (the movie deals with this side of Turing's life in a understated, non-exploitative manner).
Turing's humanity is shown through his relationship with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the only female belonging to the group of code-breakers Turing is in charge of. Turing and Clarke (at least in the film) have a special love for each other, not the usual one between a man and a woman, but a love nonetheless. Knightley's Clarke is a bit of a misfit herself (even though, because she's played by Keira Knightley, she looks gorgeous), and her fondness for the "odd duck" Turing makes the audience appreciate the man even more. Knightley is utterly delightful in this role, and she steals the film.
One would think that a movie about breaking a secret code would be rather dry, but director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore effectively dramatize the situation. I have to point out that this IS a dramatization--I checked out some facts about Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma code, and what really happened was a lot more complex (by the way, Joan Clarke didn't look anything like Keira Knightley). Every time a watch a film based on a "true story", and I look up the facts behind it, it's kind of like finding out that there's no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny.
Nevertheless, THE IMITATION GAME is a worthy film to see at the theater. It has a impressive supporting cast, including Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, and Mark Strong. Some of the film was actually shot at the real Bletchley Park, where the Enigma code-breakers were based at. Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of the best acting performances of the year, and THE IMITATION GAME is one of the best films released recently.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
I finally watched GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last night. I know I was a bit late to the party, but...oh well. Seeing a smash-hit movie for the very first time, after it has already become a smash hit, is a peculiar experience. What makes it peculiar is that one looks at it from a perspective of "Why was this such a success?" instead of just sitting back and enjoying it.
Make no mistake, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is an enjoyable movie. Director-co-writer James Gunn keeps things moving at a rapid clip, and he throws in as many supposed-to-be-funny moments as possible. I didn't really understand the plot all that much, and I knew nothing about the characters...but I think most of the people that bought all the tickets for this movie felt the same way. I mean, how many "Guardians of the Galaxy" comic book experts exist? Before this movie was made, I had never heard of the Marvel comic it was based on.
I believe the lack of knowledge among the general public about the origins of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a prime reason for the film's popularity. The characters in GUARDIANS are nowhere near the level of, say, Batman or Superman or Spider Man. The movies based on those characters make tons of money, but most viewers of them wind up arguing about them instead of appreciating them. With GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, there's no rules or iconic history to worry about...which is why the makers of this film could do basically anything they wanted. They didn't have to worry about making a serious adaptation of a graphic novel--they could just go ahead and make a popcorn movie. I'm sure there's a few out there on the internet who might be ticked off that this project wasn't "faithful" enough--but no one at Marvel Studios is going to listen to them.
There is one thing I have to bring up. If GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was not a Marvel product....would it have been as popular? In other words....did all the people who took to this movie love it because it was a great time, or did they love because it was from Marvel? If you had watched GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and did not know it has anything to do with Marvel, would you have enjoyed it as much? Obviously the movie alone must have struck some chord--but let's face it, this story never would have got made if it was not a Marvel title. I have to wonder, because of the power of social media and the mainstream media, are audiences predisposed to love certain movies and TV shows because they feel like they are supposed to?
And this makes me think of another point--is GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY really a comic book movie? Yes, it is based on a comic book....but it has very few of the typical elements one would expect from the genre. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is more of a goofy space adventure than a straight comic book tale. Most comic book movies are stuck with following certain patterns, which is why most of them appear very much alike. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY doesn't have that problem.
The major reason for why this film works is leading man Chris Pratt. He takes the role of Peter Quill and runs with it, and he infuses the entire production with his personality. Right now Pratt has become the cool leading man of the moment...but will he wind up doing his Peter Quill act in his other films, kind of like how Robert Downey Jr. is now still doing Tony Stark in his non-Iron Man features? I'm not going to call Chris Pratt the next Cary Grant or anything like that, but he was perfect for this type of story.
Two of the other popular characters of this film (Rocket and Groot) are actually CGI constructs, yet no one seems too concerned about that--which shows how much computer graphics have burrowed their way into live-action film making. Rocket and Groot kind of reminded me of those anthropomorphic non-human comic relief characters in all those Disney/Pixar animated tales--and I'm sure that was Marvel Studios' intention.
One supposed highlight of this film is a fanboy's wet dream catfight between Zoe Saldana (the new Uhura) and Karen Gillan (a beloved Doctor Who companion). The catfight is somewhat disappointing, as catfights go....and why would you cast a Geek Goddess like Karen Gillan and make her totally unrecognizable?
All things considered, I liked GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY...but not as much as some people. I can understand why this movie blew up like it did. It has a "Millennial" sensibility. What I mean by that is it has a number of traits that would appeal to the Millennial generation, such as a group of smart-aleck heroes who constantly put each other down, a retro music soundtrack, numerous pop culture references, and many over-the-top action scenes. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY does what it was designed for.....but it's not a game changer, like the original STAR WARS or JURASSIC PARK.
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Midnight Marquee Press has published a number of fine books on horror and science-fiction films over the years, and one of the latest is Neil Pettigrew's fine biography on the great character actor Lionel Atwill.
The English-born Atwill is best known now for his roles in several classic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. But Atwill was more than just a horror star--he appeared with some of the biggest stars and worked with some of the best directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He also had a very impressive career on Broadway in the 1920s. Pettigrew does an excellent job in recounting Atwill's stage performances, which unfortunately cannot be shown or heard by modern audiences. A case can be made from this book that Atwill was more successful as a stage actor than as a film actor.
Atwill is also remembered today for his supposed eccentric private life. In the early 1940s, the actor became involved in a morals case dealing with an underage girl. Atwill had nothing to do with the girl in question, but he was later indicted for perjuring himself while testifying in the case. The result was that Atwill found it hard to get work in Hollywood, and what roles he did obtain were mostly for ultra-cheap studios. To this day several wild rumors surround Atwill's private life, although most of them have yet to be proven.
This book is divided into two parts--the first part covers Atwill's life, and the second part details every film appearance Atwill ever did. It is a unique way to write a biography. Pettigrew has done a major amount of research, especially in Atwill's early life and stage career. The book is filled with photos, movie stills, and newspaper clippings relating to Atwill.
The attraction of this book to most film buffs will be Atwill's numerous Mad Doctor roles such as THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, MAN MADE MONSTER, and THE VAMPIRE BAT. But Atwill did plenty of "normal" films--he was one of the movies' busiest character actors. A lot of these roles did not take advantage of Atwill's talent--reading this book made me realize how many of his performances gave him very little screen time. My reading also made me notice how many of Atwill's characters wound up in a courtroom scene--an ironic fact that the author makes mention of over and over again.
This book features a foreword by Lionel A. Atwill, the son born to Lionel Atwill in 1945. Unfortunately the actor would die from bronchial cancer the very next year.
The esteemed film historian Greg Mank wrote a sort of mini-biography on Lionel Atwill in his book HOLLYWOOD'S MADDEST DOCTORS, but Neil Pettigrew has written the first full-length Atwill biography. Old movie buffs will appreciate this volume. Lionel Atwill is one of my favorite actors from Hollywood's Golden Age, and because of his classic horror reputation, he still has more of a legacy than most big-time stars of the same era.
Friday, January 23, 2015
Before I actually talk about the movie AMERICAN SNIPER, I'd like to discuss some of the controversy surrounding the production.
Like way too many things in America these days, AMERICAN SNIPER has become politicized to such an extent that trying to have an unbiased opinion on it is almost impossible. Before seeing AMERICAN SNIPER I read a number of reviews, and most of them judged the movie harshly--but it seemed to me the reviewers were more angry at the American military, or America's presence in the Middle East, than they were at the movie itself. I'm also sure most of these reviewers have not forgotten Director-Producer Clint Eastwood's infamous appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
One example of the amount of anger at this movie is the trending topic known as "The Mechanical Baby Scene". If you have been on the internet at any time in the last week, you more than likely have read about this. In AMERICAN SNIPER there is a scene between Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, and what is supposed to be their characters' baby--but the baby is a prop (if I had not known about this beforehand, I never would have noticed it on the screen). Some of the reaction to this scene has been almost vitriolic--it's as if Clint Eastwood broke some sacred cinema law. I bet there are plenty of movies and TV shows that have used prop babies, and no one cared--but it seems that in this case there are people that need to use this to make AMERICAN SNIPER look bad.
I do have to point out that there are some on the other side of the political spectrum who think AMERICAN SNIPER is the Greatest Film Of All Time, and anyone who doesn't agree is Un-American. I believe that Clint Eastwood's biopic of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is a very good film, with a standout performance by Bradley Cooper as Kyle.
I always thought of Bradley Cooper as something of a pretty boy, but he definitely impressed me this time around. Cooper is totally convincing as the working-class Texan who firmly believes that he is serving his country in the best way possible by fighting in Iraq. Cooper also leaves some hints that Kyle might have been a bit more politically incorrect than the movie is willing to show him.
As expected, AMERICAN SNIPER has plenty of battle scenes. Due to Eastwood's understated visual style, the battles don't wind up resembling THE MATRIX or a Jason Bourne film. It is only toward the end that Eastwood tries to jazz things up by putting in a sandstorm and a slow-moving bullet.
Some have complained that AMERICAN SNIPER glorifies Chris Kyle and the War on Terror. I certainly don't agree with that--if anything, watching this film might scare away anyone from wanting to serve in the Middle East. There's nothing jingoistic about Eastwood's approach--he shows that this conflict is terrifyingly brutal. If you want a discussion on World Geo-Politics, you are not going to get it here--Eastwood has made a film about one man and his experiences. My take on the film is this: Clint Eastwood tried to tell a story about a man who is so proficient in his form of combat, and is so affected by the type of conflict he served in, that he is no longer able to fit in to the society he feels he is fighting for. I don't see how you can call a film pro-war propaganda when it makes you question why American men and women are being wasted in countries that don't want them around in the first place.
AMERICAN SNIPER is on pace to make more money than any Clint Eastwood film ever, and it looks like it will be the most popular film made concerning the War on Terror. Most War on Terror movies have not made much of an impact....I know that THE HURT LOCKER won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but that movie seems almost forgotten by now. Certainly the combination of Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper has something to do with the impact of AMERICAN SNIPER. But it may be that, for whatever reason, the film touches many Americans. All I can say is that at the end of the showing I attended, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Kino Lorber has released the 1976 science-fiction adventure movie AT THE EARTH'S CORE on Blu-ray. The film is based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and stars Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, and Caroline Munro.
This Amicus production was a follow-up to the company's successful release of THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, which also was based on a Burroughs novel, and also starred Doug McClure. In this movie, set in the late 19th Century, American David Innes (McClure) and eccentric scientist Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) pilot a gigantic mechanical drill into the very depths of the earth, where they come across a subterranean land known as Pellucidar. While there David and Dr. Perry meet the beautiful Princess Dia (Caroline Munro) and save her people from numerous strange creatures.
AT THE EARTH'S CORE is very much an old-fashioned family fantasy adventure. The movie works better if the audience watching it has a lot of imagination and very little cynicism. Most of the "Beasties" (as Cushing's Dr. Perry refers to them) are portrayed by men in suits, and they all look very rubbery. If you can accept the monsters, and not wonder how someone can live underneath the Earth and look as gorgeous as Caroline Munro, or wonder why all the human natives of Pellucidar speak proper English, you will be able to enjoy this film. The main reason the story does work is that there is no irony or sarcasm to it--if this film had been made today, the tone of it would be totally different.
What makes AT THE EARTH'S CORE special for Peter Cushing fans is that his Dr. Perry is somewhat of a comic role. Cushing makes Perry as jittery as possible, and he pulls off some facial expressions that you would never see from him in most of his usual roles. There are some Cushing fans that feel the actor was broadly overplaying. I look at that opinion this way--after seeing Cushing play the dedicated, determined scientist dozens of times, it is a welcome treat to see him put a humorous spin on such a role. Besides, it's quite clear that Cushing had a lot of fun doing this movie, and at this point in his life, he needed all the fun he could get.
Ironically, the very next feature film that Peter Cushing worked on after AT THE EARTH'S CORE was....STAR WARS. The huge success of that film made movies like AT THE EARTH'S CORE and production companies like Amicus all but obsolete.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of AT THE EARTH'S CORE presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and in DTS Mono. As expected the movie looks and sounds far better than the old "Midnite Movies" DVD of this title. Kino includes some interesting extras, such as a 28-minute interview with the delightful Caroline Munro. Caroline is a fantasy-film legend, and she goes over her appearance in AT THE EARTH'S CORE and various other highlights of her acting career. There is also a 22-minute interview with AT THE EARTH'S CORE director Kevin Connor. Connor became Amicus' un-official house director in the mid-1970s, and he discusses many of his horror and science-fiction movies. Connor also is featured in an audio commentary, which is rather disappointing, because moderator Bill Olsen barely allows Connor to get a word in (and because Olsen constantly steers the conversation away from the movie they are commenting on). There is also a trailer and a vintage featurette on the film's many practical effects (which appear rather clever compared to all the CGI of today--the model of the giant drill is a fantastic piece of Steampunk technology).
AT THE EARTH'S CORE may not be on the Ray Harryhausen level, but it is all in good fun, and any self-respecting geek has to admire a film that co-stars Peter Cushing and Caroline Munro.
Monday, January 19, 2015
The latest high-profile WWII movie epic--following George Clooney's THE MONUMENTS MEN and Brad Pitt's FURY--is Angelina Jolie's UNBROKEN, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand.
UNBROKEN tells of the war experiences of Louie Zamperini, who ironically was a member of the 1936 American Olympic Track team which competed in Nazi-ruled Berlin. Zamperini served as a bombardier in a B-24 which went down in the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini survived 47 days in a life raft, and then was captured by the Japanese, who kept him as a POW until the end of the war.
Zamperini's story is one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that makes ordinary Hollywood screenplays look juvenile. Despite the various travails that Zamperini faces, he never gives up or gives in--he is inspired by his older brother's motto of "If you can take it, you can make it." (I kind of wish that producer-director Jolie had shed more light on Zamperini's indomitable will--there has to be more to it than just a mere slogan.)
UNBROKEN is very much a visual film, which is to its credit. There's not really a lot of dialogue--a story like this doesn't need excessive talking to let the audience know what is going on. Angelina Jolie was smart enough to get a master cinematographer like Roger Deakins to work on this project. Many of the shots are simply breathtaking....will Deakins finally win an Oscar for this?
There are two major action scenes in the film--a spectacular B-24 bombing mission at the very beginning, and the plane crash that strands Zamperini and two of his comrades in the Pacific. Despite this UNBROKEN is not a "blood & guts" war film--Jolie is able to show the conflict, and the brutality of some of the Japanese soldiers, without excessive gore. Jack O'Conner does a fine job in what must have been a very hard role as Louie Zamperini--most of the time Louie is reacting to things, rather than instigating them. Mention must also be made of Alexandre Desplat's moving score.
If UNBROKEN does have a problem, it is the ending. I have not read Laura Hillenbrand's book, but many who have say that the real ending is missing from the film. In the movie we are told on a title card that long after the war Zamperini actually sought out and forgave some of his Japanese captors--could you imagine how powerful this scene would have been if it was filmed?
I have to give Angelina Jolie credit for bringing UNBROKEN to the big screen. If someone like Jolie had not been involved with this story, I doubt it would have been made, at least not as a major feature film. There were a number of films based on the Allied POW experience in the Pacific--most notably THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI--in the 1950s and 60s, but there have been very few lately. I think the reason is political correctness--most filmmakers feel uneasy showing non-whites committing atrocities. I don't think Angelina Jolie (or Laura Hillenbrand, or Louis Zamperini, for that matter) was trying to make the Japanese look bad--she was trying to tell the real story of a man who used his faith and his will to survive conditions that would be insurmountable to most of us. Out of all the recent big-time WWII productions, UNBROKEN is by far the best.
Sunday, January 11, 2015
If you have read any of my blog posts, you are likely aware of the fact that I have very little interest in modern-day horror films. Most of them are structured around excessive gore or violent action, and they lack the advantage of the classic Gothic setting. Contrary to the belief of some, I don't watch horror movies because I want to see people get killed, or women harmed, or the "bad guys" winding up victorious. To me an effective scary film needs to rely on more than just blood & guts--it should have an atmosphere of unease.
Very few films made today have that, but a new one that does is THE BABADOOK, an Australian production written & directed by Jennifer Kent.
The story centers around Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who works at a nursing home, and her 6 year old son Samuel (Noel Wiseman). Amelia's husband died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel, and both mother and son suffer from emotional trauma. One night Amelia reads a mysterious pop-up book to Sam before bedtime. The book is called "Mr. Babadook", and it looks like it was designed by a very angry Tim Burton and written by a very angry Dr. Suess. The book causes Samuel to become even more emotionally upset, to the point where he is convinced that the evil Babadook exists. Soon both Amelia and Samuel wind up in downward spiral of fear and loathing, fighting a force they cannot see or define.
THE BABADOOK is not for the SAW or WALKING DEAD crowd. It has supernatural elements but it is also an exercise in psychological horror. Essie Davis gives an amazing performance as Amelia. Before the Babadook book is even read, we can tell that Amelia has issues. She's still not over the death of her husband, and the attitude problems of her son are clearly taking a toll on her. She also suffers from sleep deprivation, and she looks so tired throughout the film that after awhile I myself started feeling run down just watching her. Essie Davis really has to go through the ringer here, and it's surprising that a low-budget horror film would feature a realistic presentation of a working-class single mother.
Then again, maybe it's not so surprising, considering that this film was written and directed by a woman. Most horror films are produced by and for men, and men usually require action. In this film Amelia is sort of trapped by her circumstances of being a single mother with an unruly child. What makes Amelia's situation all the more worse is that she is constantly being judged by those around her. A male character in this type of film would grab a gun or an ax and do something....Amelia can't do those things. At one point in the film Amelia leaves work early and she is shown just walking around a mall. This scene stuck with me because it is so real--the fact that someone like Amelia just needed a few moments to get away from her responsibilities.
With his wide eyes and crocodile smile, Noel Wiseman is just about the creepiest kid since Martin Stephens in the early 1960s. He's certainly not the bad guy in this story, but because of his behavioral problems the audience feels uneasy about him--and that's something I think director Kent wanted.
The sense of unease that THE BABADOOK projects comes from more than just the two main characters. The production design contributes to the unease as well. Most of the film takes place inside Amelia and Sam's house, and the color scheme there is a dark bluish-gray. Because of this the film feels like a black & white movie shot in color. The house also has a very sparse look to it, which doesn't seem contrived, since it is established that Amelia does not have a lot of money. The overall effect of the art direction gives the movie an Expressionistic/silent film quality.
The real highlight of this production is the actual Babadook book. It is one of the best movie props in recent memory. The book was designed, illustrated, and built by Alex Juhasz, and actual limited-edition copies of the book are being sold on the internet by the film makers (if anybody wants to go out and buy me one, feel free). The book is really a main character of the story, and it is the only thing that gives the audience a general idea of what the Babadook may actually look like. We never get a proper view of the Babadook in the film, which makes it all the more frightening. The only clear visual motif we have of it is a top hat, which obviously ties it into the world of classic horror. Jennifer Kent also references classic horror by featuring "cameos" from the works of George Melies, Lon Chaney, and Mario Bava in the film.
Suffice to say I was highly impressed by THE BABADOOK. It is one of the best horror films I have seen in a long time. There's barely any gore in it, and even better, there appears to be almost no CGI. One thing I appreciated was that no explanations were given for the Babadook book--you never find out who wrote it, or why, or even how the book got into the possession of Amelia and Sam in the first place. (If you don't have much of an imagination, and you want everything explained to you, you'd better skip this film.) I have to give Jennifer Kent credit for fooling me. At one point after a dialogue scene revealed some information about Amelia, I thought I had the story figured out, and I thought that the book was just a MacGuffin--but no, the ending I was expecting didn't happen, and I was pleasantly surprised by that. The character of The Babadook is a great addition to the list of memorable movie monsters, and the film of THE BABADOOK is a great creation by Jennifer Kent.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Last week Donna Douglas, best known for playing the role of Elly May on TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies", passed away at the age of 81. Since today happens to be the 80th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley, I've decided to take a look at a film that co-starred Douglas and Presley--1966's FRANKIE AND JOHNNY.
When I was a kid, Elvis movies were constantly being shown on television, just like John Wayne movies. I never really paid to much attention to the Elvis movies because they always seemed boring to me. I have to say that as I have gotten older my opinion on the King's film career has not changed very much, due to examples like FRANKIE AND JOHNNY.
Produced by Edward Small, directed by Frederick de Cordova and released through United Artists, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY features Elvis as Johnny, the lead performer in a show troupe playing on a 1890s riverboat. Johnny's on and off-stage partner is Frankie (Donna Douglas). Frankie and Johnny are usually at odds with one another due to Johnny's gambling habit, which leads him into debt with the riverboat's owner Braden (Anthony Eisley).
Johnny is so desperate to change his gambling luck he winds going to a gypsy fortune teller. The gypsy tells him his luck will change if he meets up with a red-headed woman. Johnny and best friend Cully (Harry Morgan) go back to the riverboat hoping to find such a red-head. (In just about every Elvis movie, a middle-aged character actor plays Elvis' best friend or brother/father figure--I think this was because such an actor wouldn't be a romantic rival to Elvis.)
Sure enough, the statuesque red-haired Nelly (Nancy Kovack) shows up. Nelly is a former flame of Braden, and she's also a musical performer looking for a job, so she joins the troupe. Johnny gets her to accompany him to the gambling tables, and he wins big. He spends most of the movie figuring out ways to get Nelly to gamble with him without making Frankie angry, while Nelly decides to use Johnny to make Braden jealous. (In just about every Elvis movie, there's always multiple women fighting over him, because, hey, he's Elvis...he's too much man for just one woman.)
There really isn't much more to say about the plot of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY, because frankly, there isn't much of a plot. Various complications between Frankie, Johnny, Nelly, and Braden ensue, but everything winds up all right in the end. Elvis gets to sing a song about every 10 minutes, but in all honesty, even though I watched this movie last night, I couldn't tell you the lyrics or the titles of any of them. There's not a "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" on this soundtrack. Elvis also gets to have a fistfight with Braden. (In just about every Elvis movie, the King gets into at least one fistfight--I guess this was to prove he was a "Man's Man".)
The musical highlight of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (if you could call it that) is a stage performance of the American folk song "Frankie and Johnny". It is staged in a bluesy, expressionistic manner--which is totally wrong for the period that the story is supposedly set in. According to this film, it is Cully who writes the famous song (I bet you didn't know that Colonel Potter came up with that tune, did you?).
FRANKIE AND JOHNNY is slickly made, but...it's about as light as a container of Cool Whip. The movie just kind of sits there. It is on the same level as a 1960s TV situation comedy. Even though I saw this film in widescreen and HD, I was continually reminded of all the classic reruns I've watched in my life. And I'm not just referring to the fact that the movie stars Donna Douglas. The sets, the lighting, the camera angles....they all remind me of 1960s television. The storyline does as well--at one point the main characters attend a costume party, and all the females wind up wearing copies of the same costume, so of course there's the typical "comic" misunderstandings.
Donna Douglas gets to wear much better clothes here then she ever would as Elly May (she looks spectacular in her showgirl outfits). Elly May almost always had a smile on her face, but Frankie spends most of her time ticked off at Johnny. Nancy Kovack is just as much of a knockout as Donna Douglas is. She's kind of wasted in the role of Nelly--one expects Nelly and Braden to be obstacles against Frankie and Johnny's happiness, but even Nelly and Braden turn out to be "good guys" in the end, another example of the script's light tone.
As for Elvis.....the best I can say about him in this movie is that he's a pleasant enough fellow. If you watch this film it will be plain to see that Johnny isn't exactly the most demanding role in the world. All Elvis had to do in FRANKIE AND JOHNNY was to be Elvis--and that's what he does. I still got the sense he was just about walking through this role.
If you want to put FRANKIE AND JOHNNY in proper perspective, consider this. It was two years before FRANKIE AND JOHNNY that Richard Lester and the Beatles made A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. That movie has just reached it's 50th anniversary, and it still remains fresh and vibrant. FRANKIE AND JOHNNY appears old-fashioned even for 1966--it could have easily been made in 1936. Elvis Presley was one of the most exciting performers of all time--and here he's reduced to doing something that Don Ameche could have done decades ago. With all the cultural changes going on in the mid-1960s, did anyone connected with FRANKIE AND JOHNNY actually think that this film was the right vehicle for Elvis? I highly doubt that the young folks were breaking down the door to see this movie.
Elvis fans are a tad bit obsessive, so I'm sure that they will consider FRANKIE AND JOHNNY to be first-class entertainment. As for those not anal about the King, there's worse ways to spend your time if you've got nothing better to do for 90 minutes. There's plenty of eye candy in this movie (the showgirls for the guys, and Elvis for the gals--heck, Elvis has more costume changes than the ladies do).....but while I was viewing it I kept thinking how underwhelming the cinema career of Elvis Presley was.
Sue Ann Langdon, Donna Douglas, and Nancy Kovack
Saturday, January 3, 2015
If you like reading and buying books about the movies, you may be familiar with the BFI FILM CLASSICS series. Small in size (8.5 x 5.5 inches) and content (about 100 pages), each book in the series covers a single film which has some renown. One of the latest entries deals with the classic Hammer science-fiction film QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, made in 1967.
The writer of this book is prolific British author Kim Newman, a man who has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and television. I've always enjoyed Newman's capsule reviews of DVDs and Blu-rays in Tim Lucas' Video Watchdog magazine, and this time Newman gets a whole book to deal with one film.
Newman starts out by detailing the history of the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass, from his creation by Nigel Kneale for BBC television, to the big-screen adaptations of the Quatermass stories by Hammer Films. The opening chapter is extremely beneficial to Americans who have never seen any of the original BBC Quatermass mini-series.
The author then gives an in-depth, scene-by-scene analysis of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. Even if you have seen the film several times, you will appreciate Newman's unique take on it--Newman takes Hammer seriously, but at the same time he's not a fanboy who thinks everything that Hammer ever did is the greatest thing ever made. There's an exhaustive amount of facts about the production here, but the best part of this book is Newman's interpretation of Nigel Kneale's script and Roy Ward Baker's direction. It is very rare that a genre film like QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is reviewed in such a fashion.
The book has a number of stills from the movie, along with many stills from the BBC version of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT.
I would think any serious Hammer fan would want to pick up this book. I believe this is the first time a Hammer film has been featured in the BFI FILM CLASSICS series. Hopefully there will be more Hammer titles covered--it's surprising the company's 1958 DRACULA hasn't been already.