Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Last 5 Movies I Watched

Baby Snakes (Frank Zappa, USA, 1979, 166 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 Third Viewing
Frank Zappa’s film of his 1977 New York Halloween concerts is riveting when it focuses on the action onstage, but is unfortunately overcrowded with extraneous material – including irritating mid-song cutaways to the musicians having tedious backstage conversations.  Even the most interesting non-concert segments, such as Bruce Bickford’s nightmarish claymation interludes, are poorly integrated into the overall film.  Still, the last hour or so, consisting of mostly uninterrupted concert footage of one of Zappa’s most ferocious bands, is essential viewing for any fan of the great guitarist’s music.  The mesmerizing encores of guitar solo vehicles “Muffin Man” and “Black Napkins” are particular highlights.  C+

Con Air (Simon West, USA, 1997, 115 min.)
Viewed On Demand        Second Viewing
This surprisingly fun action blockbuster finds newly released ex-con Nicholas Cage trapped in a prison transport plane hijacked by its most psychotic passengers.  The film is no less bombastic than other Jerry Bruckheimer productions, but in this case the filmmakers seem to actually be aware of how ridiculous all of this is, and they wisely choose to commit to going all the way over the top without ever stopping to wink at the audience.  The top-notch ensemble case (which includes John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Colm Meaney, and, most memorably, John Malkovich as a character named Cyrus the Virus) prove adept at keeping a straight face through the explosions.  B-

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, USA, 1944, 98 min.)
Viewed on Itunes             First Viewing
Preston Sturges not only managed to sneak all sorts of innuendo and blasphemy past the production code office in this wild screwball comedy, but also turned it into the biggest box office hit of 1944. Betty Hutton stars as a small-town girl who finds herself married and pregnant in the aftermath of a drunken send-off party for the troops, but with no memory of which soldier she wed.  Eddie Bracken is the classic Sturges smitten male, who is easily drawn into Hutton’s plan for him to pose as her husband before her father (William Demarest) finds out about the pregnancy.  As is typical for a Sturges film, all of the parts are perfectly cast, and he never sells out any of his characters for easy jokes.  The big laugh-out loud moments don’t arrive until toward the climax, but two of these scenes rank among the funniest in the Sturges canon:  one in which Demarest’s character, who is the town constable, struggles at length to convince Bracken to escape from a jail cell, and a montage where famous world leaders overreact to news of Hutton’s “miraculous” birth of sextuplets.  A-

Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, USA, 1935, 90 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies              Second Viewing
Charles Laughton stars in this warm-hearted comedy about a refined British butler who is forced to assimilate to American culture after his Lord (Roland Young) loses his services in a poker game to a nouveau riche hick couple (Mary Boland and Charlie Ruggles).  Boland hopes that Laughton will help clean up her husband’s redneck lifestyle, but instead it’s the freedoms and opportunities of the new country that rub off on the butler.  In some ways this film may mark the birth of the poet in director Leo McCarey, who turns this silly culture clash scenario into a very sweet love letter to the idea of America.  The justly celebrated scene where Laughton recites the Gettysburg Address to a crowd of enthralled bar patrons has a stirring intensity that reveals the deep personal relevance that the speech had to both McCarrey and his star.  A

Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1941, 99 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies              First Viewing
As a general rule I find Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘40s melodramas to be relatively dull compared to his brilliant suspense works of the ‘50s, and this potboiler about a woman (Joan Fontaine) worried that her new husband (Cary Grant) is planning to murder her is no exception.  As usual Hitchcock’s skill as a director is unquestionable, and he finds all sorts of interesting, subtly creepy ways to position Grant’s character in the frame.  This is Grant’s best performance for Hitchcock, allowing him to both play to and subvert his charming rogue persona.  But the story doesn’t really work, because the husband is so blatantly untrustworthy that it’s never believable that Fontaine would fall for him in the first place, and because Fontaine’s character has no personality beyond worrying about her husband.  The unconvincing happy ending that producer David O. Selznick tacked on doesn’t help matters either.  Despite its flaws, this is worthwhile as a showcase for both Grant and Hitchcock, even if the director made many better films.  B-

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