Tag: Michael Curtiz

It’s your pre-Father’s Day Blu-Ray/DVD Round-Up

The DVDs and Blu-Rays have been piling up. So, it’s time to go through a bunch of them, with a bit of extra attention paid to movies that might appeal to dads, though I suppose moms might like some of these as well.

* Playwright George Kaufmann famously defined satire as “what closes on Saturday night” and these days you might as well define political thrillers as “what doesn’t get greenlit unless a bunch of big stars really want to do it, and then bombs.”  “The Manchurian Candidate” is both political thriller and a satire and it didn’t fail at the box office, though it was kept out of circulation for nearly twenty years after its initial release for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to this day.

I’m hardly alone in feeling this is probably the best political thriller ever made and possibly the second best political satire after “Dr. Strangelove.” Long after the end of the Cold War which spawned it, it’s continues to resonate with our political culture and it’s title still gives peoples the willies. Just ask John McCain.

Directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a novel by the mordantly comic suspense novelist Richard Condon of “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Winter Kills,”, you might know that it’s the story of what happens when a Soviet/Red Chinese brainwashing unit gets its hands on a group of captured soldiers, including Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, who makes aloof bitterness very cool), the highly estranged step-son of a Joe McCarthy-like senator. Frank Sinatra does maybe his best acting work as a traumatized fellow soldier who realizes something might be up because of some very strange and very bad dreams he’s having — and the fact that he keeps calling the unpleasant Shaw “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

It’s a brave blend of politics, off-the-wall black comedy (what was called “sick humor” back then), suspense, and borderline Jacobean classical tragedy. Frankenheimer had a knack for making political material work dramatically, and also for drawing out strong performances. Janet Leigh (“Psycho“) was perfect as the female love interest, who was written so oddly by Richard Condon and screenwriter/playwright George Axelrod that many have theorized she’s actually an operative of some sort — an idea capitalized on in Jonathan Demmes’ disappointingly morose 2004 remake. The greatest casting coup here, however, is Angela Lansbury’s absolutely chilling turn as Raymond Shaw’s hated extremist Washington-hostess mother. She wasn’t the only less-than-pleasant character Lansbury ever played, but there’s something about what happens when actors who make a career largely playing nice people play extremely not-nice people that can be electrifying.

I also can’t resist mentioning the fight scene between Sinatra and Henry Silva as a North Korean spy, which Frankenheimer was often proud to mention was the first use of martial arts fighting styles in an American film. Seeing it again, it’s not only more brutally effective than I remembered as Sinatra and Silva all but destroy Laurence Harvey’s Washington apartment, but — especially in the initial moments when Sinatra instinctively begins fighting the Silva character without even knowing who he is — it’s pretty obvious to me now that it had to be one of the main inspirations for the terrific first fight scene in “Kill Bill, Volume I,” in which Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox lay waste to a Pasadena living room.

The Blu-Ray is, by the way, not a deluxe restoration, but it includes all of the excellent features that earlier DVDs have included and the print has been kept in excellent enough shape that a new restoration isn’t really necessary. It looks great. Super highly recommended, though pricey.

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Turner Classic Film Fest: A history of violence

I know, pretty dark headline for  a post about a really fun, glamor heavy film fest. All the more so because, at least for me, TCM  Fest is the kind of event that  can put you in a kind of steel bubble which the daily news can barely pierce. If another Cuban Missile Crisis happened during Comic-Con, what would happen? Maybe if it ended differently this time.

Indeed, even a momentous event  like the death of Osama Bin Laden could just barely penetrate TCM’s  mix of Hollywood fantasy and scholarship. For me, the news first came as I overheard another filmgoer during an intermission of “West Side Story,” which I had popped in on just to see how good the 70mm print was, say to another. “No, he’s really dead.” I figured it was another classic film star gone forever. George Chakiris, who played Sharks leader Bernardo, had introduced the screening, but how were Jets Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn doing?

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Mission to TCM

If I may delve into hardcore cinephilia for one post, Turner Classic Movies is doing a very funny thing this month, they’re letting a movie blogger — along with a better known film critic — mess with their nightly schedule.

To be specific, the wondrous Self Styled Siren, who recently emerged as one Farran Smith Nehme of New York City, is co-curating with Lou Lumenick of the New York Post, Shadows of Russia. It’s a series of classic and rarities dealing with the former Soviet Union and it’s complex relationship with the United States and the West. Tonight’s centerpiece, showing at 10:00 Eastern/7:00 Pacific, is “Mission to Moscow,” one of a few pieces of World War II-era wartime propaganda requested by the U.S. government in order to create a better image of our wartime ally to the East. Despite the fact they had basically been made to please the U.S. government and assist the war effort, these films later came under suspicion from the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as the Cold War heated up again almost immediately after the end of the war.

I’ve never seen “Mission” but it’s apparently a faux-factual, completely absurd whitewash of the very real evil of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. Making it a lot more interesting is the fact that this was no cheapy, but a glossy A-picture directed by Michael Curtiz and written by Howard Koch, both of whom had extremely illustrious careers on their own and whose most famous effort together was arguably the best American propaganda film of all time, “Casablanca.” No one thinks it’s a great movie or even a particularly good one in any normal sense of the word, but apparently its sheer wrongness makes it a really interesting movie experience. If you even one bit interested in mid-century history, this is one you won’t to miss.

The Siren and Lou Lumenick have more on “Mission to Moscow,” another interesting sounding tale called “The North Star” which you’ll have to be very quick on the trigger tonight if you want to see it (it’s 5:00 Pacific/8:00 Eastern) and some other possible goodies showing later on, including “The Kremlin Letter,” a hard-to-find 1970 spy thriller directed by John Huston I’ll have a hard time resisting.

More remakes

* The word has arrived of Steven Spielberg‘s new project, it’s a remake of a particular favorite of mine, Mary Chase’s terrific play “Harvey,” best known for the solid 1950 film version starring Jimmy Stewart in one of his best roles. (He reprised the part for TV in 1972.) Nikki Finke mentions Tom Hanks‘ name for the plum lead role of Elwood P. Dowd, a grown man who believes his best buddy and constant companion is an invisible 6’6″ rabbit. I’ve also seen Will Smith‘s name floated for it (he’s maybe a bit young for the part, still), but any number of actors could take this one on in fine fashion. It’s also possible Hanks might be a bit leery about stepping into a role so closely associated with the actor he’s most often compared to, but therein may lie the challenge, too. Jeffrey Wells inveighs against the project, in the usual terms. I think it’s fine, as long as Spielberg and writer Jonathon Tropper bring something new and worthwhile of their own to this version.

One interesting aspect here is the way that our present age is in some respects more puritanical than America in 1950, particularly as it relates to drinking. Most modern viewers would likely regard Elwood Dowd as an alcoholic today. (In the old days, I remember that TV Guide referred to him as a “gentle tippler.”) Will Spielberg and Tropper try to send Elwood to rehab? I say, no, no, no. Also, I sure hope Wells is wrong about the CGI Harvey. That would pretty much eliminate the whole point of the tale. This is not “Roger Rabbit.”

* I’m a bit late on this, but the planned remake of the Michael Curtiz-directed Errol Flynn swashbuckler — or, to be more kind, the new adaptation of the 1922 Rafael Sabatini novel of derring-do on the high seas — should really be called “Captain Blood in Outer Space” now. By the way, the 1935 “Captain Blood” was actually the second version of the tale to be made in Hollywood. Damn remakes.

* One way to avoid the whole “remakes bad” thing is to use a movie that hardly anyone in your target audience has seen. The French spy thriller, “Anthony Zimmer,” may be available through Netflix, but it there are only three reviews posted of the 2005 film on Rotten Tomatoes, which means it likely only showed in the U.S. at festivals and the like. When the new version, renamed “The Tourist,” comes out with Charlize Theron and Sam Worthington, will anyone remember “Zimmer”?

* Anne Thompson has some thoughts on the general timidity of Hollywood. She’s not wrong, particularly when it comes to the endless recycling of once-hot properties, but — at the risk of repeating myself — I really do think that most of the complaining is off-base to the extent that there’s really nothing new under the sun and that even “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” were essentially remakes the very first time they ever appeared on an Elizabethan stage. When remakes are good (say, “3:10 to Yuma“) no one complains, though too many forget the original. When remakes are bad (“The Wicker Man“, which was worse than bad, actually), well, the fault is not in the idea of remakes but in what the filmmaker decided to do with the material.

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