29 August 2010

Kinky Films Good and Bad

Kinky Pictures to Please and a Turn Off or Two
A List by Leigh Wood

Basic Instinct - Director's Cut (Ultimate Edition)I don’t think it would do much good if I made a list of the horrendous soft-core drivel flooding late night premium channels. (Thanks for nothing Cinemax!) I also don’t normally write these short recommendations-but when talking ‘porn with plot’ or ‘plot with porn’, there’s no need for long-winded hyperbole, is there?

Good Stuff

Basic Instinct – Forgot all the infamy of Sharon Stone’s split second bush flash- if you’re looking for a damn fine thriller and plenty of skin, you can’t get much better than this 1992 murder mystery. There’s something for everyone here- rightly or wrongly director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Total Recall) gives us killer lesbians, Michael Douglas’ ass, and plenty of explicit sex romps that go the distance. Douglas (Wall Street, Fatal Attraction) and Stone (Casino yes, but we won’t talk about Basic Instinct 2) play a wonderfully kinky game of cat and mouse that has your brain thinking about the crime at hand right up to the final sex scene.

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair (1999) – Ralph Fiennes’ other movie The English Patient may get all the attention, but this World War II gem co-starring Julianne Moore (The Hours, Boogie Nights) has more steam, story, and spirituality then that pompous desert flick. (Insert Seinfeld’s ‘Just die already! Die!’ here). The titular affair from director Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire) and author Graham Greene is much more realistic and intimate, and the fallout of the sex amid the Blitz is dealt with just as smartly. Fiennes is on form as a cranky writer caught on the absolutely lovely and conflicted Moore- and her wise husband Stephen Rea (The Crying Game with Jordan) is also perfection. Back to the precious Patient- ‘I can still taste you’, who the heck says that, honestly!

Semi Selective

Boxing Helena – I absolutely adore this bizarre 1993 erotic debut from Jennifer Lynch, but understandably others may not. Julian Sands (Warlock, A Room with a View) and Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks, Rude Awakening) are delightfully disturbed in this twisted examination of obsession, sex, and a whole bunch of other psychological angst. Those who are familiar with this film probably know its big secrets; but if not, I can’t really say anymore than the title. Lynch and her intimate cast play with our minds, desires, and perceptions to wonderful intelligence and sexy stupidity. Magical!

The Blue Lagoon – If you aren’t a teenager and you’re still watching this 1980 tropical yarn purely for the budding Brooke Shields (Suddenly Susan) and ripped Christopher Atkins (Dallas), you are a sick, sick puppy. When we were younger, this was the type of heavy and forbidden film we snuck a peak to see. Today, of course, the nudity and sex is actually tame- but the story isn’t as insignificant as it once was. Yes, a lot of the film is laughable thanks to its opening Victorian establishment flashing forward to beautiful and beachy eighties teens. Overall, the acting stinks and can even put you to sleep. Director Randal Kleiser’s (Honey, I Blew Up the Kid) adaptation of author Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s novel, however, is an honest examination of innocent, society free love. This frank look at the bloom of sexuality is actually refreshing- but the sequel Return to the Blue Lagoon isn’t.

Showgirls (Fully Exposed Edition)Showgirls – I’ve tried to watch this one all the way through countless times, and I think I’ve finally seen this entire 1995 stripper romp over a dozen snippets. Has a film every been so polarizing? Director Paul Verhoeven’s (yes him again) NC-17 raunchfest single handedly ruined former good girl Elizabeth Berkeley (Saved by the Bell) and the NC-17 classification. Yet, this and roles in Bound elevated Gina Gershon to kinky cult status. I’m not one for all the naked glowing girls, lesbian innuendo, and rape and revenge; yet Showgirls goes where other films dare not and thus has to be attempted for a fun girls’ sleeper or a guys’ poker night. In hindsight, Showgirls may be more ground breaking than bomb. Some serious filmgoers will always despise this one- but there’s an audience for such trashy guilty pleasures, too.

Bad Ass Bad

Body of Evidence – At the time, fans might have thought Madonna’s kinky phase was artistic freedom, pushing the censorship envelope, expressing herself and all that. Unfortunately, looking back at this 1993 sexfest proves how far Truth or Dare took trashy. As always, Willem Dafoe (Platoon) is a-okay as the lawyer defending death by sex murderer Madonna (Dick Tracy, Evita), and the courtroom scenes are as intelligent as the usual law dramas, too. The sex storyline, however, is much too much-and Madonna doesn’t even look that good. She’s young and rounded, sure that’s fine, but the clothes are ugly-complete with matching satin granny panties. The bright lighting of her face just comes off as bad set design, and my goodness the sex scenes here don’t look unsimulated at all! It only makes viewing this movie even weirder. TMI and two hours of my life I’d like to have back.

Embrace of the Vampire – Alyssa Milano (Who’s the Boss, Charmed) kisses women and shows her boobs. If you like that sort of thing, find the clips online and don’t bother with the rest of this 1995 snoozer. If you like vampires, don’t bother with the one in the title here-director Anne Goursaud (Poison Ivy II) didn’t. Allow me another Seinfeld quote then, ‘The story is the foundation of all entertainment. You must have a good story, otherwise it's just masturbation.’

26 August 2010

Bus Stop (1956)

Bus Stop is a Lovely, Quirky Character Piece
By Kristin Battestella

Though its one of her more critically acclaimed films, 1956’s Bus Stop doesn’t have all the musical flare and comedy marshmallow of Marilyn Monroe’s more famous movies. This brooding examination of flawed ruffians and singers isn’t happy go lucky by any means, but it deserves another look thanks to tight performances and vintage charm.

Strong but naïve Bo Decker (Don Murray) and his old ranch hand Virgil (Arthur O’Connell) take a bus trip from Montana to the big city of Phoenix for a rodeo where Bo is sure he will win every event.  Bo also hopes to find an ‘angel’ to marry, but he is very inexperienced with women and city customs.  After seeing Cherie (Marilyn Monroe) perform in a club, Bo is quickly smitten and promptly expects to marry Cherie and take her back to Montana.  Cherie, however, has had bad luck with men in the past, and she’s trying to drop her hillbilly roots for Hollywood. Fellow singer Vera (Eileen Heckart) tries to help Cherie escape Bo, but he kidnaps his reluctant fiancée, forcing her onto the bus towards Montana.  When a snowstorm forces bus driver Carl (Robert Bray) to stop over at Grace’s Diner, Grace (Betty Field), fellow passenger Elma (Hope Lang), and old Virgil must confront Bo about his abhorrent behavior.

Let me get some negative out of the way first. Director Joshua Logan (South Pacific, Camelot) and screenwriter George Axelrod (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate) don’t take William Inge’s (Splendor in the Grass, Picnic) source plays as far as I might have liked. Bus Stop doesn’t go to the seriously dark and scary places with which a modern film tends to over desensitizes us.  Even for a film of 1956, we expect more when we hear of brutes taking dames against their will.  The use of the word ‘molest’ might also be odd to modern audiences- again we expect something kinky instead of the traditional meaning of merely bothering someone.  The dramatic commentary about men learning to be men and women expected to marry and stay at home is also thanks to the dynamics of the day. The conclusion here is also a little weak, but Bus Stop still packs a psychological punch and satisfying end. Despite some fifties tameness, there’s plenty of hurt for the cast to dip into and examine. This is after all, a character study.  Who knew so much angst could happen at a bus station?

Bus StopThe abused hillbilly girl trying to forget her past-who would have thought this is a part for the glamorous Marilyn Monroe.  Cherie is similar to our Norma Jean in a many ways. She’s somehow innocently steamy but a little tragic at the same time. For someone who wants to be a singer and star, Cherie doesn’t like to be laughed at in public and doesn’t want the kind of attention she’s getting.  Marilyn only has one song in Bus Stop, but it’s a damn good one. Yes, her Southern accent is a bit off.  However, Monroe keeps in character and puts on a seemingly less that perfect rendition of ‘That Old Black Magic’- and it works more than some of her more famous and carefully conducted big show tune numbers.  She’s close to weeping in the off-key performance but the entire Cherie introductory sequence is just great.  Cherie is actually kind of stupid, but her idealistic Hollywood dreams keep her likeable.  Monroe (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot) is thinner than usual in Bus Stop, and her gaunt, pale look fits the part of an overworked nightclub girl.  We’re used to seeing all the singing and smiles, but Cherie’s stuttering fear of Bo and the shame he makes her feel are wonderfully done. Monroe keeps Cherie angelic and charming despite her seemingly unflattering background. How can the viewer fault such a pretty girl with dreams and desires of real love?  “Now gimme back my tail!”

Some of the fifties colloquialisms in Bus Stop are a little too Howdy Doody and almost redneck, but this helps Bo’s early innocence and dorky style.  His notions that a woman can be broken as easily as an ornery horse or rowdy steer is naive enough to start, but Don Murray’s (Advise and Consent, Knots Landing) debut mix of immature cowboy stupid and unchecked brute ruffian is just bursting to go the wrong way.  Murray’s combination of ill and wrongful obsession with careful orchestration is loud and over the top yet slick and repressed at the same time.  In some ways, his stupidity and Cherie’s wide-eyed innocence are perfectly matched-what a cute, simple hick couple! However, her insistence on ‘Cherie’ being special because it’s French and his insistence it’s just dumb ‘Cherry’ show how ill-advised this pair can be.  We know long before he literally ropes her onto the bus that, as Bo says, ‘he won’t take no for an answer’. His necessary comeuppance is both great to see and somewhat sad at the same time.  Bus Stop is a lesson learned the hard way indeed.

In addition to the stars, Bus Stop has plenty of ensemble talent.  Betty Field (The Great Gatsby, Peyton Place) and Robert Bray (Lassie) are a lot of fun as the sassy diner owner and tough bus driver.  Some of their banter is a little fifties hokey, but there’s also some fun and cheeky innuendo, too.  The underlying if brief triangle between them and Arthur O’Connell’s (Anatomy of a Murder) Virgil is a charming old-fashioned courtship.  O’Connell wonderfully balances Murray’s rowdy Bo and keeps him in his place.   Oscar winner Elieen Heckart (Butterflies are Free) is also delightful as tough waitress Vera.  Her stern help and young Hope Lange’s (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and the real life future Mrs. Murray!) warm Elma smartly lift up Cherie with support and confidence. This ensemble doesn’t have as much to do as the audience expects, but each has his or her moment to shine whilst keeping in the proper supporting shadow of the leads. 

Contrary again to other Monroe pictures, Bus Stop isn’t big on costumes and spectacles.  Although Monroe wears a very small green costume for her one song, she only has that and one other simple set for the entire film. Sure, we can’t help but notice Marilyn, but the smart lack of shiny costumes also forces us to look at her character, too. The colored lighting of the nightclub and its seemingly high-end style contrasts against the rough west wonderfully as well; and the Rodeo scenes look authentic enough.  It doesn’t seem like all stunties, but as if a real rodeo was filmed.  Now the snow probably is fake, of course, but the wintry fight scene is well choreographed and keeps the stark look of Bus Stop harsh.  Congested interior filming and frames filmed through metal headboard bars also perfectly capture the entrapment that is to come.  The camera movement keeps the conversations from being static, and the lovely use of diegetic guitar music adds soft background tunes.   Logan also smartly positions his camera for odd, forceful positioning of the lead pair.  Murray is always behind Monroe or being the physical one dominating the frame, adding another visual layer to the relationship at Bus Stop’s forefront. 

Blessedly, Bus Stop is available in several DVD editions and sets.  My rented netflix disc came from the Marilyn Monroe Diamond collection and had subtitles along with several other features-although it was mostly trailers and promos for the complete set, which promises all the documentaries.  Reading the slides about the restoration and preservation of Bus Stop was interesting enough for someone like me-a fan of classic film preservation- but I’d rather there was a technical feature to go along with the snips of split screen comparisons and before and after shots.  The disc did skip a few times, but that’s understandable with a rental-and it wasn’t nearly as sensitive as blu-ray. Strangely, it doesn’t seem like any Monroe pictures are on blu-ray.  Sacrilege!

I confess some of the country music might jar on certain ears, but that’s no reason to dismiss Bus Stop. Fans of Monroe’s song and dance films might also find the then-contemporary western and serious style too much of a departure.  However, viewers looking for more of Marilyn’s merit will find it here.  Western fans, classic audiences, and nostalgia fans should also give Bus Stop a chance anew.  This quirky little Bus Stop might surprise you!

21 August 2010

Sharpe's Trafalgar

Sharpe’s Trafalgar a Seafaring Breath of Fresh Air
By Kristin Battestella

After reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe India Trilogy, I was keen to move on to the next chronological tale, 2000’s Sharpe’s Trafalgar.  As a Hornblower enthusiast, I wanted to see how landlubber Sharpe would take on this famous high seas adventure.  There are a few hiccups, yes, but otherwise Trafalgar does its duty to the reader wonderfully.

It’s 1805 and Ensign Richard Sharpe is finally leaving India on his return voyage to England.  His passage begins on the Calliope under Captain Peculiar Cromwell, but the unfriendly Captain and the snotty Lord William Hale make the trip unbearable for Sharpe.  Thankfully, Sharpe’s quickly smitten by Lord William’s cold, seemingly sickly and distant wife Lady Grace.  When the French warship Revenant captures Calliope, all hope of Romance and England is almost lost.  Fortunately, Captain Chase and his Pucelle reclaim the Calliope, and the Pucelle’s vengeful pursuit of the Revenant opens new adventures for Sharpe.  He learns what its like to be a ship bound marine, flirts dangerously in romance with Lady Grace, and ends up fighting in a little battle off Cape Trafalgar

Sharpe's Trafalgar: Richard Sharpe & the Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805 (Richard Sharpe's Adventure Series #4)Recently, I don’t have as much time to read straight through a book as I’d like.  However, my father was in the hospital when I first started Trafalgar, and my days having to be still and quiet in his room allowed me plenty of time with Sharpe.  I tore through most of the novel- as opposed to some of the weaker  recent books like Sharpe’s Fury where I found myself skipping around looking for the good parts.  Thanks to the storyline and my bound reading situation, Trafalgar reminded me very much of one of my favorite and most read books, Lieutenant Hornblower. I remembered the first time I read Lieutenant Hornblower- stuck in detention at school, trying desperately not to fall asleep as I read Hornblower’s wild Caribbean adventure under a mad and crazy Captain Sawyer and his subsequent ill adjustment to land life playing whist. (I could talk for hours about Lieutenant Hornblower, so I’ll just stop there!  I actually have a cat named Mr. Bush, that’s all I’m saying.) 

The different ship experiences in Trafalgar-both positive and negative for Sharpe- capture the creepy, tedium, monotony, and cramped living of seafaring life whilst also highlighting the high seas mystique, homebound excitement, and adventure of the unknown.  We are learning so much about Richard by seeing him as the proverbial army fish living the navy lifestyle.  For the first time since beginning my readings with Sharpe’s Gold, I feel like we’ve been personally with Sharpe, knowing his yearning, plans, and desires.  Even in the India trilogy where he was alone without Harper and the rest of his rifleman pals, we still had too many viewpoints and villains to really get to know the budding Sharpie.  Here in Trafalgar, however, we spend most of the novel with nothing to do but follow Sharpe.  I felt his impatient tedium and angry vengeance right there in that hospital room.  I was there pursuing the Revenant with Sharpe and learning the ropes of the Pucelle.  This is what a book is supposed to do, and it’s downright refreshing!

Lady Grace is also a cool dame-chronologically the first real relationship we’ve seen for Richard.  There have been other sexcapades and relations based on the situations of the time in India, but this feels like a real romance for Sharpe at last.  First, he is obsessed with the aristocratic lady on board, and his cabin fever-like risks make for great reading. It’s not a lovely dovey romance here- the delicate stance the couple treads is mixed with the usual heavy we expect from Sharpe. When he gets his girl, we then see the confident, intelligent Grace emerge through Sharpe.  Grace and the relationship are well developed-even if it’s a foolhardy affair.  She’s witty and charming compared to her limp fish husband Lord William, but we can’t deny the hot scandal putting the entire Pucelle at risk.  I dare say Sharpe is even a little unlikeable when it comes to protecting his adulterous actions.  He’s a throttling, vengeful force that should be feared-and it’s strange to see that his battlefield fury can also be used socially, even lustfully if he feels so passionately.

Of course, now that we’re at sea, we have the usual cast of characters onboard ship- swarthy sailors, corrupt politicians, scary surgeons, and vile Frenchmen. It’s not always easy to tell where everyone’s allegiances lie- and this makes Sharpe’s lengthy journey perilous and entertaining. Captain Chase is a wonderfully good hearted man who takes a liking to Sharpe, but Captain Peculiar Cromwell is just that, a little too peculiar to be an honest man.  Brawny gunner Cloutier is a little stereotypical, but also well written as the seemingly low but loyal and heroic brute with exceptional and deadly skill.   The dedication Sharpe takes in him is almost as confounding to Cloutier as Chase’s attention to the supposedly low Sharpe.  On a ship, it seems action oriented talent like Sharpe’s is rewarded amid the ship’s hierarchy- rather than shunned or snubbed by the army officers who resent his rise from the ranks.

Naturally, there wouldn’t be a point in calling a book Trafalgar if you weren’t going to have Admiral Nelson make an appearance.  It’s a neat portrayal.  The reverence Nelson had from his peers is instantly made known-along with his more scandalous behaviors-but his small stature, gentile and warm-hearted style touch Sharpe.  It’s not treated as obligatory or hokey when the famous ‘England confides that every man will do his duty’ signal comes to the fictional Pucelle.  Again, it’s all very Hornblower-esque, somber and written in multiple layers.  Instead of spelling everything out for his reader like Cornwell sometimes does with his research and information, the scenes with Nelson are quiet, reflective, and tightly written.  Space for the reader to reflect and emote is allowed amid the unspoken lines.  Not only is the setting akin to the Hornblower series, but some of Cornwell’s finer writing here is almost as good as C.S. Forester’s work.

Unfortunately, yet again the ending of Sharpe’s Trafalgar doesn’t live up to the lovely adventure of the rest of the novel.  We spend the first eleven chapters almost exclusively in Sharpe’s point of view-only to have the last chapter of battle action break down into nameless French viewpoints, stern to starboard action, and intrigue in the Pucelle’s lady hole.  I like the seafaring battle action-perhaps even more so than the Napoleonic proper retellings- but it’s just a little too broad and impersonal after all that intimate Richard time. Sharpe, the Pucelle, and Revenant weren’t even at the Battle of Trafalgar after all; yet like so many other big battle sequences in recent Sharpe books, I had to ask myself again, ‘Where’s Sharpe?’  How can we spend an entire naval voyage from India to Trafalgar in his point of view only to have him disappear for extended chunks of the main battle? We know how Captain Chase feels, what the nameless wounded French guy bleeding out on the deck is thinking, we see what ships on the other side of the battle theater are doing-but we don’t always know where Sharpe is in the action.  For all the historical research, we’re dealing with fictional men on fiction ships- stick to them! Trafalgar wraps up much too quickly-with the simplicity of tossing the loose plot strings overboard, literally.  Naturally, a few things should be left for the follow up Sharpe’s Prey, but the whole point of this homeward bound journey was to go home, wasn’t it? If the point was the deviation for Trafalgar, the battle should have happened a lot sooner than the last two chapters. 

Despite the unraveled ending, Trafalgar is one of the more tightly written books in the series, and one of the finest since the original canon books.  I imagine those who prefer the Peninsular Sharpe action might not like the naval lessons here, but fans of the initial Sharpe books should definitely try this similar but different taste of naval action.  Readers of Hornblower or Patrick O’Brien will absolutely delight.  In some ways, I can image an entire series with Sharpe as an army man stranded on a frigate always facing adventure.  I suppose that may show my true leanings towards Our Man Horatio, but this is the first time we’ve really seen Sharpe alone and out of his element- just like Hornblower always thought himself to be.  Oh how I’d love to see a crossover movie between these series! Though I don’t have the next chronological book Sharpe’s Prey, I’m eager to continue reading on with Sharpe’s Rifles.  Despite being in the middle of the chronology, uninitiated viewers can meet Sharpe in this relatively stand-alone sea epic as well.  Return to Sharpe and relive Trafalgar as your final beach read this summer.

10 August 2010

Summer Split Decisions

Summer Split Decisions
By Kristin Battestella

The Bone CollectorSome films you love without a doubt after numerous viewings.  Other shows you can’t get past the first fifteen minutes.  Unfortunately, what’s a viewer to do when torn between a movie’s good and ills?  Here are a few films both young and old on which I simply can’t decide!

The Bone Collector – Only Denzel Washington (Glory, Training Day) could deliver so fine a performance from a hospital bed.  The wonderful supporting cast- including Ed O’Neill (Married with Children), Queen Latifah (Chicago), and Luis Guzman (Carlito’s Way) - is great.  The spooky and grisly crimes from Jeffery Deaver’s source novel are intense.  Director Philip Noyce’s (Patriot Games) claustrophobic and dark camera angles juxtapose perfectly with the neat, upscale, and high tech remote technology.  Now then, I like Angelina Jolie (Girl Interrupted, Tomb Raider) I really do, especially in some of her earlier work such as this- but I don’t like her here.  She does well as a protégé cop with something to prove, but it’s as if Angie and Denzel are in too different movies.  Both have talent indeed, and they might even have chemistry should they work together again, but the pair is just too flat here.  You have to watch this one twice-once for the Denzel angle, and once for the Jolie feel. 

Highlander: Endgame – It’s the stuff of a Highlander fan’s dream: Connor MacLeod and Duncan MacLeod in one movie!  Despite the alternate establishments in the 92-98 television series, 2000’s Endgame has a decent enough storyline and plot to keep things plausible-unlike the useless 2007 sequel Highlander: The Source.  Bruce Payne (Passenger 57) and his villains are cool enough, main chick Lisa Barbusica (Bridget Jones’ Diary) is likeable, and of course, our immortals Christopher Lambert (Mortal Kombat) and Adrian Paul (Tracker) are wonderful.  However, something just isn’t right with Endgame.  I want to like it, honestly I do; but some of the more complex, multipart storylines of the series are better.  It also seems like no matter how hard they try- especially with alternate versions and special DVD cuts- all these movie sequels just aren’t as good as the original.  Completists will eat this one up, but casual fans are better off with the 1986 debut film or the series.  As it turns out, Connor and Duncan together is too good to be true.  After all, ‘There can be only one!’

The Legend of Hell House – Many consider this 1973 haunt fest a serious horror classic.  No doubt about it, the scares, kinky innuendo, terrifying house, psycho psychics, and ghostly dynamics are all here in fine form.  The filming and music is of its time yet still creepily shocking and askew today-maybe more so thanks to the now period looking styles.  Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes), Pamela Franklin (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), Clive Revill (Avanti!), and Gayle Hunnicutt (Dallas) are gothic perfection, too. Unfortunately, the weak, too tame and simply dumb ending here undoes all of author Richard Matheson’s legwork- it just isn’t as juicy as his source novel.  Of course, if made today, there would be so much sex, gore, twists, turns, and herky jerky bad camera work that no concept or story would make it in the film.  I know, I know, beggars can’t be choosers.

Public Enemies (Single-Disc Edition)Public Enemies (2009) – I love Depression era music, movies, and styles; and once upon a time, I really liked Christian Bale.  Ergo then, one would assume I’d be in heaven with this gangster flick starring Bale (The Dark Knight) as FBI man Melvin Purvis and Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) as bad boy John Dillinger.  Unfortunately, I didn’t even make it to the end here.  Halfway thru, I stopped caring if the 45-year-old Depp as 31-year-old Dillinger was misunderstood, and Bale was more boring than badass.  The costumes looked great, and the Chicago scenery was wonderful, but there wasn’t enough period tunes to really set the mood.  Too many liberties are taken, and Channing Tatum (G. I. Joe: Rise of Cobra) as Pretty Boy Floyd is only in Public Enemies for five minutes tops-what the big deal with him anyway?  I do, however, wish there had been more of David Wenham (Lord of the Rings) as Harry Pierpont.  The fine ensemble cast is lost amid the obviousness of Depp and Bale.  Pity. Now, it may be old, low budget, and not have nearly as many stars playing cops and robbers; but I actually prefer the 1996 Public Enemies with Theresa Russell as Ma Barker to this flashy caper.  Okay so Dan Cortese (Veronica’s Closet) is Melvin Purvis in that one.  Bale doesn’t really step it up, here, though, does he?  What’s next, Russell Crowe as Al Capone?

The Screaming Skull – I wanted to like this 1958 creeper, but the only risqué things here are some bullet bras and flimsy nightgowns.  There is an audience for this type of hokey old scare, but this one could have been a lot more serious or scary than the final result.  Instead, we resort to Rebecca imitations and the usual, cliché horror staples with lots of screaming and obvious double twists.  The music is also way too absurd and banshee-like, more like the stylings of a Halloween CD than a score.  Maybe I was just expecting too much?  I’m not surprised Mystery Science Theater 3000 had its hands on this one.

The Silver Chalice – Paul Newman is one of my favorite classic leading men.  I simply adore his staples The Hustler and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as some of his smaller pictures like The Young Philadelphians, The Long Hot Summer, and my favorite Hud.  However, one might not know of the longstanding Newman clout that is to come by taking in his debut here.  The semi-biblical production values are similar to other epics of the day, but director Victor Saville (I was a Spy) went for some sort of abstract or stage like designs that just look too SCA or half dressed theatre rehearsal to be a big movie.  The story, delivery, and dialogue also come across as slow and a little too hokey- especially in dealing with the apocryphal magician Simon Magus. The wonderful Jack Palance (Shane, City Slickers) has nothing but ham to do here.  I’m also not a big fan of Virginia Mayo (Captain Horatio Hornblower), having yet to been impressed with her in every show in which I’ve seen her.  Still, I suppose ladies who love the young and pretty Newman can fast forward through the faulty here-even if the man himself disowned this one!  

Twists of Terror – I stumbled upon this 1996 anthology film on cable several times and still can’t decide if I like it or not.  Some of the vignettes are well written, paced and developed fine, and have solid acting from Jennifer Rubin (The Crush) and Nick Mancuso (Mob Stories).  However, the twists come a little too early or are fairly predictable, and the paranoid scenario of crazy host Joseph Ziegler (Black Harbour) introducing us to each tale is just stupid.  For being a saucy cable film, I’d also expect more than the generic sex and gore-but then again, some of the ‘what you don’t see’ is done a-okay.  Am I torn or is this one that bipolar?

When In RomeWhen in Rome (2010) – Despite a very likeable cast- including Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family), and Danny DeVito (Taxi)- I simply found nothing funny in the 2010 romantic European comedy.  Okay, there was one scene when the itty bitty car fit inside an elevator.  That was it!  I wanted to like the titular Italian charms, but the premise just falls too flat, leaving the cast with nothing much to do.  It almost feels as if director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) and writers David Diamond and David Weissman (The Family Man) are knocking off this overdone Judd Apatow wave- but this one is gonna be for chicks! Supposedly the leading man, Josh Duhamel (Las Vegas) also seems like just another dude in the frat crop.  Sigh.

Actually, it seems my distaste for a few of these is more evident than I thought!  

01 August 2010

Gentleman Prefer Blondes

Gentleman Prefer Blondes A Musical, Monroe Delight!
By Kristin Battestella

Maybe not everyone has seen this 1953 musical comedy starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.  Yet somehow, we all know of Marilyn, the pink satin dress, and ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’.   Sing it with me, ‘A kiss on the hand may be quite continental but…’ but is the movie still any good?  I answer you with a resounding yes!

Two showgirls, the sensible but fun brunette Dorothy Shaw (Russell) and dim but money hungry blonde Lorelei Lee (Monroe), travel on a cruise to France with hopes of impressing the wealthy father (Taylor Holmes) of Lorelei’s hopelessly hooked fiancé Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan).  On the water, Dorothy flirts with fellow passengers like the Olympic Swimming Team and the handsome Ernie Malone (Elliot Reed) - who’s really a detective hired by Mr. Esmond Sr.  While trying to keep his feelings for Dorothy separate from his mission to discredit Lorelei, Malone photographs Lorelei with the married Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn).  Known as ‘Piggy’, Beekman owns a diamond mine and a tiara- trouble making treats that are just too irresistible to Lorelei.

Famed director Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Red River, Sergeant York, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, okay I’ll stop there!) and writer Charles Lederer (Ocean’s Eleven, I Was a Male War Bride) get right to the fun and nudge nudge wink wink of Anita Loos’ (San Francisco, The Women) novel and Joseph Fields’ stage adaptation.  From the opening song ‘Two Girls from Little Rock’ to the famous ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, we don’t let up for an hour and a half.  The spectacle of the stage numbers, quiet comedy scenes, and subtle onscreen slapstick blend together in fine pace and form.  Though Gentlemen Prefer Blondes carries the feel of its stage musical predecessor thanks to the romance, song, and dance, the viewer must pay attention to the dialogue and slapstick for the full storyline.  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes spends more time making us love our leading ladies rather than simply giving us one number after another. 

Well then, Marilyn Monroe is as dynamite and iconic in Gentleman Prefer Blondes as you’re going to get- and she can carry a damn fine tune!  Contrary to her onscreen persona, Monroe (reteaming with Hawks and Lederer from Monkey Business) is the master of the dim blonde, veiling the marshmallow with great comedic timing and matching in time with Russell’s sarcastic wit.  Monroe makes Lorelei Lee’s unaware stupidity not just tolerable or even acceptable, but downright sexy and certainly forgivable.  The way she trembles at the sight of a tiara yet asks, ‘How do you put it around your neck?’ wonderfully showcases Monroe’s layers and Lee’s true colors.  They say never work with kids or dogs, but Monroe’s scenes with little George Winslow (also Monkey Business) as the dry Mr. Spofford- particularly when Lorelei is stuck in a porthole- are downright adorable.  

She’s certainly not unloved by the classic film viewing public, but Jane Russell (The Outlaw, His Kind of Woman, The French Line) has taken a backseat to the iconic Monroe in the years since Gentleman Prefer Blondes’ release.  I wholeheartedly protest!  Despite being known as a ‘Marilyn Monroe film’, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes allows all of Jane Russell to shine, too.  Though a lovely lady then and now, Russell didn’t make as many movies as her bombshell contemporaries, and it’s a dang shame. She is a sexy and dynamic cinema dark horse, using every ounce of her charm so Dorothy Shaw can keep us on our viewing toes.  Russell keeps the sardonic and fun flare on form whether it’s the big song or serious conversations.  Her intelligent, mature, and sophisticated but unlucky in love polar opposite to Monroe contradicts yet somehow matches wonderfully.  Pick your pleasure!  Both ladies are also damn curvy by today’s standards, but by golly they look good.  Seeing films like this makes me wonder why we starve ourselves today.  Russell would return in 1955’s Gentleman Marry Brunettes with Jeanne Craine (State Fair), but the sequel isn’t as fun without the Russell and Monroe element.

The boys of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are no slouches, but they are obviously a little less famous then our dames.  Tommy Noonan (A Star is Born, Swingin’ Along) as the somewhat geeky Gus seems mismatched to Lorelei, yet Noonan equals Monroe’s dim and lighthearted charm.  Likewise, Elliot Reid‘s (The Absent Minded Professor) Malone is the usual fedora wearing detective who tests Jane Russell wit for wit.  Could we have had better, bigger named leading men?  Certainly- but isn’t the point of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the gals to whip the boys with their sex appeal?  Oscar winner Charles Coburn (The More The Merrier, Heaven Can Wait) and Norma Varden (National Velvet, Strangers on a Train) as Piggy’s wife Lady Beekman add a touch of maturity to the cast, even if they, too, are also smartly used comic fodder. Taylor Holmes (Kiss of Death) is somewhat of a Magoffin throughout the film, but his final, funny confrontation with Monroe is a charmer nonetheless. 

Naturally, folks who don’t like movie musicals or swinging fifties tunes may not like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  It’s a shame, because the songs both new by Hoagy Carmichael (Stardust) and Harold Adamson (An Affair to Remember) and those brought from the stage by Jule Styne (Funny Girl) and Leo Robin (My Sister Eileen) are quite catchy.  Our leading ladies have different ranges, but they sing well together and make each individual verse or solo their own.  Russell’s sassy ‘Bye Bye Baby’ is just as toe-tapping as Monroe’s mellow interlude from the same song is dreamy.  ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love’ by Russell is as equally charming as ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, too.  Yes, the pseudo sports routine isn’t that good a dance number, but all the near nude buff boys and a dripping wet Jane are just a little more scandalous.  There’s actually not as many big dance numbers, complex routines, or spectacle songs here as with other musicals of the day.  All Gentleman Prefer Blondes needs are close up shots of our gals singing good stuff and we’re a-okay.  Nevertheless, ‘When Love Goes Wrong’ is a damn fine mix of shakin’ and shimmyin’, and Russell puts her own feisty courtroom stamp on ‘Diamonds’ before the film is done. 

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the lovely costumes by Marilyn’s oft dresser Travilla (Dallas, Valley of the Dolls) or the fifties colors, flair, and style. The red lips and glittering ruby red frocks are simply impeccable.  You couldn’t get away with these styles today, but the hats, leopard prints, furs, diamond bling, pink satin- oh I could go on with the fashion delights here!  Even the black pantsuits are cut wonderfully for the curves and bullet bras on our gals.  Yes, the sets are somewhat small scale and cardboard since we’re on a cruise ship for most of the film, but there’s certainly plenty of color and fun onscreen nonetheless thanks to our catwalking ladies. Monroe is dressed in all the flashy shine and vibrant colors, but Russell is equally devastating in a largely dark wardrobe.  Though monochrome, the assorted shapes, cuts, and fabrics make us look closer.  Don’t loose an eye on those bosoms!  

Marilyn Monroe fans, lovers of Jane Russell, and musical comedy audiences can delight in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes again and againThere’s nothing taboo here at all, and new audiences or the young at heart should certainly give this one more than its cursory ‘Diamond’ glance.  Unfortunately, just like most of Monroe’s films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes isn’t available on blu-ray just yet.  Again, I protest!  Thankfully, several DVD editions in assorted Marilyn collections, streaming options, and rental opportunities are available.  Take a cruise with Dorothy and Lorelei tonight!