Monthly Archives: March 2009

movie log: The Strong Man (1926)

Seen March 5, 2009: The Strong Man directed by Frank Capra, starring Harry Langdon, Priscilla Bonner, Gertrude Astor, and Arthur Thalasso.

This was shown on the big screen at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, NH, with live music composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, who is one of the people behind the program of silent films shown at the Palace and at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton NH. The film was preceded by two shorts (which I’m tempted to give their own blog entries, but let’s just do this):

    1926’s Circus Today with Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde – 20 minutes of pretty funny antics at a circus with two men, a woman, and a lion – all of whom end up inside a cabin suspended by a hot air balloon.

  • 1923’s It’s a Gift with Snub Pollard – Pollard is an inventor called upon by oil executives to help them out with their oil problems. There are some good bits about Pollard’s Rube Goldberg lifestyle, and you’ve probably seen clips from this film where he travels around in his little cart pointing a magnet at passing cars to achieve locomotion.

As to the main feature (which was, by the way, Frank Capra’s directorial debut): Paul Bergot (played by Harry Langdon) is a Belgian soldier in WWI who receives love letters on the battlefield from Mary Brown (Bonner) of the US. All that Bergot knows of her is from her letters and the one picture he clings to. He’s captured by a German soldier (Thalasso) and, at war’s end, becomes the assistant of the German, a strongman who goes by the name of Zandow the Great – both ending up in the US. Most of the rest of the film concerns Bergot’s efforts to locate Mary Brown while performing with Zandow. The quest begins in the city, where Bergot is hilariously involved with a woman with criminal associations. It ends up in a frontier town that has been taken over by gangsters, to the dismay of the town’s religous community led by Pastor Brown (whom, you may have guessed, is Mary’s father). There’s a wild confrontation between all factions, with Bergot on the stage subbing for drunken Zandow, the gang of criminals in the audience, and the holy townspeople making the last of 7 days’ marches around the saloon whereafter they hope, as with Jericho, the walls will come tumbling down.

Harry Langdon was one of the bright comedy stars of the 20s, but by most accounts he didn’t understand the degree to which outside direction and help from others led to his success, and he made choices that almost instantly wiped out his career. It’s a shame, because he was one funny guy, with a style all his own, and he could have left a much fuller legacy. In this film he displays a gentleness of motion, a meek stubbornness, and comic athleticism that is extremely entertaining. There’s never a dull moment in this movie, and I’d love to see it again.

movie log: Zero Hour! (1957)

Watched March 1, 2009: Zero Hour! directed by Hall Bartlett, starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and Sterling Hayden.

Zero Hour!, story by Arthur Hailey (of “Airport” fame), is the movie that was later remade as the fantastic comedy Airplane!. Ted Stryker (Andrews) was a WWII fighter pilot who had made a critical mistake that cost the lives of some of his men. Psychologically scarred, he can’t find work and his marriage is in trouble. One day he comes home to find that his wife Ellen (Darnell) has left him, taking their son Joey on a flight westward across Canada to Vancouver. Stryker summons up his courage and boards the airplane to try to convince her to stay. But trouble looms: food poisoning strikes down the pilot and co-pilot, and Stryker – the only man aboard with any flying experience – must bring the plane safely down, guided on the radio by his former commander Martin Treleaven (Hayden), who is sure that Stryker will fail.

This was not my first viewing, but I had seen Airplane! many times before having seen this film for the first time. While Airplane! also borrows from others and adds a lot to the mix, most of the basic elements are here; there’s even a sports star, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, playing the role of pilot. If you’re familiar with Airplane! (and probably anybody who sees Zero Hour! nowadays is) then watching this movie is a bit of a dissociative experience. You follow the story, you hear familiar lines said in dead-serious tones, you want to laugh – you do laugh. You hear lines that nobody says, and you laugh at those. You think Sterling Hayden does a great impression of Robert Stack. It’s an entirely different experience than was originally intended, altogether. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to see this movie first; would it be memorable, or would it just be seen and vaguely remembered? Perhaps being remade as Airplane! has given this movie a longer, although different, life that it might have had. Surely that’s not a bad thing.

But if you like Airplane!, spend 80 minutes and watch this, maybe with some friends. That’s just what they’ll be expecting you to do.

movie log: Definitely, Maybe (2008)

Seen February 28, 2009: Definitely, Maybe directed by Adam Brooks, starring Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, and a bunch of others.

This is a light romantic movie with a contrived plot that immediately makes one think of the TV series “How I Met Your Mother.” The movie begins with Will Hayes (Reynolds) about to be divorced from his wife. His precocious daughter Maya (Breslin) is full of questions: don’t you love her? how can you get divorced? Will tells her that in order to understand, she’d have to know the story of how he met three women, one of whom was the mother. And he’ll tell her the story, but she’ll have to try to figure out which one he ended up marrying. The bulk of the movie follows this story as he tells it.

And it’s an OK story, even if one can’t believe he’s telling it to his daughter (nor in the detail that we see, although by her reactions we’re led to believe that this detail is included in his telling of it). The three women are played by Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher, and there are good performances by others including Adam Ferrara and Kevin Kline.

My biggest reaction to this film was that it’s great to see Ryan Reynolds get a decent role in a decent movie. Why an old geezer like me here in the wilds of NH has any interest in seeing a particular actor do well is probably a good question, but I’ve always rooted for Reynolds; let’s hope there’s more to come. The movie is very watchable, although I’m not sure I’m exactly the target audience. I didn’t really buy the premise or the specifics of the conversation between father and daughter, or other stuff between them that I won’t get into, but I just put that aside. There’s no deep meaning or lasting effect to be had here, just a couple of entertaining hours.

movie log: Leap Year (1921)

Viewed February 27, 2009: Leap Year directed by James Cruze and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, staring Fatty Arbuckle and a host of others.

This is approximately an hour-long feature with Arbuckle playing Stanley Piper, the nephew of and heir to an irascible old coot, and thus viewed in universe of this film as a rare catch for the ladies. As the film opens, Stanley has taken a shine to his uncle’s nurse, but he has a hard time telling her this for various reasons (for one, he has a nervous stutter that keeps him from expressing his complete thoughts). Coincidentally the misogynist uncle decides he’d rather have a male nurse and fires this one. The uncle goes off to a spa in hopes of healing his gout, while Stanley takes a trip to Catalina. As the movie progresses, Stanley meets one beautiful woman after another, and tries to cozy up to each in turn in order to get advice about approaching the nurse (remember her?). Due to his nervousness and stutter, each woman thinks that he’s trying to confess his love to her and, because he’s such prime husband material, immediately accepts his alleged offer of marriage.

They all – Stanley, his uncle, the nurse, all of these other woman, each man that has an interest in each woman – end up back at the uncle’s house, where great farcical maneuvers ensue.

This really is quite a funny old movie, and it moves along at a good clip. Then again I’ve never really seen a Fatty Arbuckle movie that I didn’t enjoy.

movie log: Right America: Feeling Wronged (2009)

Viewed February 22, 2009: Right America: Feeling Wronged – Some Voices from the Campaign Trail, a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.

This is one of a number of exposés of right-wing subjects by Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi, current Speaker of the House of Representatives). An earlier documentary, Friends of God…, was entertaining and illuminating to the max, and I’m looking forward to seeing her The Trials of Ted Haggard soon. In this film, she travels around some conservative areas in the US to get man-on-the-street style interviews with people who voted for McCain in the recent presidential election, in order to get their reaction to their candidate’s loss. Those she gets, or at least the ones she shows, range from idiotic to moronic, passing through outright racist.

I have mixed reactions to this film. On one side, one just sits there jaw-droppingly dumbfounded at the things people are saying to the camera. Many of the old canards are paraded out: Obama will take the oath of office on the Koran, his middle name is Hussein, he refuses to take the Pledge of Allegiance, a black person (and worse words are used) should never be President, and more. Perhaps worse, many people are completely unable to produce an argument behind their position at all, and often not even a sentence. There are a few people who make reasoned statements, but the memory of them is blotted out by most of the others. On the other side, one wonders if Pelosi is simply setting up her ducks and shooting them down: I suspect (in fact, am pretty sure) you can find lots of ignorant and hateful people on any side – people who have political alignments they can’t justify and beliefs they can’t explain – and indeed get-out-the-vote drives sometimes seemed aimed at hustling them up. One thing you have to give her: she certainly plumbed the depths on the side she was going after. This may not be exactly educational, but it sure is watchable. It brings to mind that Churchill quote that’s you see behind every position these days, that “the biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter.” And having cited it, I too can feel all superior.

movie log: The Legend of 1900 (1998)

Viewed February 21, 2009: The Legend of 1900 directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, starring Tim Roth and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and featuring Bill Nunn and Clarence Williams III.

This is the story – a fantasy, really – told in flashback reminiscences by musician Max Tooney (Vince) about a man who was abandoned as a baby aboard a passenger liner in the year 1900. He is found by coal stoker Danny Boodmann (played by Bill Nunn) on top of a grand piano in the ship’s luxurious ballroom. As it’s the beginning of a new century (geeks, you’ll have to get past the fact that it really isn’t) Boodmann christens the boy “1900” and raises him aboard ship. Time elapses, Boodmann passes on; one day the boy 1900 wanders into the ballroom, sits down at piano, and displays an innate talent. More time goes on and 1900, now grown into a man (played by Tim Roth) wows the first-class passengers who gather nightly in the ballroom. In all this time, 1900 has never left the ship, yet his reputation has spread. His life is remembered in episodes, some dramatic, some romantic, some poignant. In one, famed musician Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, takes a trip on the ship just so he can prove his superiority to 1900. The contest between them, about midway through the film, with 1900 producing a Leo Ornstein -like performance, is not to be missed. One assumes that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the character of the real Jelly Roll Morton; you just have to treat it as poetic license. And they did use some of Morton’s music in the contest.

This is my third viewing of this movie, and it’s just a wonderful film. In my mini-review of “Angel-A” I referred to that film as a fairy tale for adults – a friend suggested that that tag might apply to this movie as well.

Other than a few sequences (such as the above-mentioned piano contest), this is a deliberately-paced (read: slow) movie, which may put off some viewers who demand action and fast cars and explosions (OK, so there are some explosions in this film). While my tastes generally run to the more deliberate movies, even I would say that the second half of this film could use some tightening. But then again: the version I’ve seen is the US release which runs 125 minutes. The original release was 35 minutes longer than that, and I suspect that any problem that I have with the editing of this film stems from the fact that so much was removed from it. I’d love to see the longer version and compare.