Thursday, May 22, 2008

Consider Yourself Clued, Baby

This past week, Warner Bros unleashed just about every Frank Sinatra title in their vaults onto DVD. One featuring his films with co-star Gene Kelly (On the Town, Anchors Aweigh, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game), a second collection from the late 40s through the early 50s that contain some career “firsts” (first feature – Higher and Higher, first on-screen kiss – Step Lively) and a couple of missteps (The Kissing Bandit and Double Dynamite) that probably helped nudge him into his early ensuing career slump, a Rat Pack collection (featuring the original, and refreshingly low tech, Ocean’s 11) and a third featuring 5 films that span the period between 1955 and 1965. Frank Sinatra - The Golden Years, is an interesting hodgepodge that reflects the odd turns that The Chairman’s film career took once he was powerful enough to choose his own projects. A glance at Sinatra’s film résumé prior to 1953’s From Here to Eternity shows the typically frantic attempt on the part of studio executives to turn a singing sensation into a viable screen entity. And while there were certainly regrettable choices post-Eternity (due mostly to woeful miscasting as in the relatively obscure Peninsular War epic, The Pride and the Passion) Sinatra finally found his voice – and came to terms with his limitations – as an actor.

The set is framed chronologically by a pair of clunky romantic comedies Marriage on the Rocks (1965) and The Tender Trap (1955), which are recommended only to see Frank struggle with material that desperately needed the light comic touch of someone like Rock Hudson to work. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) is actually not Sinatra’s forgotten turn as super spy James Bond, but one of those ahead-of-its-time-but-now-dated melodramas about drug addiction. Director Otto Preminger had courted controversy two years earlier with The Moon is Blue, a romantic comedy where the use of words like “virgin” and “mistress” got the film banned in more than a few areas, and pushed the envelope again with Man, the first Hollywood film to deal with drug addiction as its central theme. Sinatra had often cited this as his favorite performance – and it’s certainly near the top. It’s easy to imagine Preminger, at his most bombastic, pounding away at the hipster posturing that Sinatra too often leaned against on film, leaving an emotionally draining performance behind. It’s an interesting, well-intentioned film that suffers from a toned-down ending (Nelson Algren’s source novel ends on a pitch black note) and obvious, studio-bound sets that don’t back up the realism that Sinatra’s performance engenders. Some Came Running (1958) reunited Sinatra with another source novel from James Jones, a combination that had produced From Here to Eternity 5 years previously. This time, however, Jones’ massive novel proved too unwieldy for the screen; his cynical take on small-town, post war America is far more psychologically complex than the very visually-minded Vincente Minnelli could easily tackle, and the result is more Peyton Place than anything else. But it’s a handsome production (its small-town setting belies an enormous budget) and it’s nice to see Sinatra spar with co-star Dean Martin before the Rat Pack ethos took hold.

Our personal favorite from the collection would be None but the Brave (1965), Sinatra’s lone directorial credit. I’m sure there’s an interesting story on how this film came to be, and I wish that I knew it; by ’65, stores of the Pacific theater of World War II had been exploited in dozens of films, but none had attempted to tell the story from the Japanese point of view. Sinatra plays a medical corpsman attached to a company of Marines that crash lands on an isolated island inhabited by an equally small company of Japanese – who are without a working radio and cut off from their main force. After a few skirmishes, there is a limited truce so that Sinatra (who plays a character called only “Francis”) can treat one of their more seriously wounded in exchange for a supply of fresh water. The strained truce continues until a US warship appears to rescue the Marine company, and the commanders of each side must choose between the newly formed bonds of friendship and their military duty.

To our recollection, this was the first American studio film that attempted to tell a story of World War II from the Japanese perspective. The narrative is nearly split evenly between the opposing sides, with the Japanese even allowed the rare honor – at least in Hollywood – to speak their own language on screen (though the narration provided by their commander, Lt, Kuroki, is in English). Unfortunately, Sinatra’s direction is pretty uninspired; many long exposition scenes are presented in a static wide shot that simply keeps the speakers in frame, leaving many sequences looking simply photographed, rather than directed. A bigger problem is the presentation of the Marines. Even the casual viewer will gain an instant appreciation for the way Sam Fuller was able to fashion distinctive personalities among his soldiers in films like The Steel Helmet and Merrill’s Marauders; Sinatra cast pal Brad Dexter as a cigar-chomping sergeant and then son-in-law Tommy Sands as a gung-ho lieutenant to nearly disastrous effect, with each (presumably under Sinatra’s auspices) seeming to out-cliché the other. Sinatra, possibly owing to his expanded role behind the camera, has a much smaller role than some may be expecting. Unfortunately, with only himself to answer to in the director’s chair, he falls into the easy trap of peppering his dialogue and body language with a decidedly post-war hipster attitude that occasionally makes his character seem like a visitor from another planet. Warts and all, it’s much more interesting than many of the other rote actioners of the day, and deserves much credit for setting the stage for later films like John Boorman’s 1968 Hell in the Pacific, a more high-minded allegory dealing with the same conflict.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I Am Curious - Giallo!

In a way, Dario Argento is like an absentee father for horror fans. No matter how many times he forgets our birthday, bounces a child support payment, or not show up to take us to the zoo, we still love him because…he’s Dario! Just watching 5 minutes of Suspiria or Bird with the Crystal Plumage and we forget all about…well, just about every other picture over the last 10 years.

The above still appeared recently on Shock Till you Drop and it’s from Dario’s newest (still in production) film, Giallo. Now, titling an Italian film “Giallo” is like Wes Craven calling a film “American Slasher Film” – which could be a good idea, but probably wouldn’t. Giallo means “yellow” in Italian, but cinematically speaking the word defines a broad spectrum of horror films that combined whodunit plots with occasionally graphic violence. Why yellow, you ask? The term originally referred to a series of pulp paperbacks published by the Mondadori company in the 1920s that all had yellow covers.

Argento has been bedeviled by distribution problems throughout his career (of late, his second biggest problem) so hopefully, the presence of Oscar winner Adrien Brody will help actually get this into theaters and away from the bootleg tables at Chiller conventions.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Everything New is Old Again

I hate to run you in circles, but if you hop over to Cinefantastique you find my review of ZPG (Zero Population Growth), a Sci-Fi eco-thriller from 1971 starring Geraldine Chaplin, and Scribe favorite, Oliver Reed. Though the film can’t be called a success, it’s an interesting member of the ‘Save the Earth’ series of films (including Soylent Green and Silent Running) from that era.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

We Can’t All Be Lion Tamers

I made the error of visiting the Imperial War Museum at the tail end of a tiring day; I had looked forward to going from the moment the trip to London was planned, but, as with the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms, there was much more to see than I had imagined. The emphasis is on 20th Century conflicts, with stunning exhibits dedicated to the First & Second World Wars. One nice surprise that wasn't listed on their website was the motorcycle that T E Lawrence was killed on! It was oddly heartening to read that his death in 1935 happened exactly the way it was depicted in Lawrence of Arabia – even to the point of swerving to avoid the two bicyclists in the road. It was purchased and restored by a private collector (it sustained very little damage in the accident) and is on temporary loan to the museum.

Lon-done at last

Sorry everyone. It's been a while and I can offer no excuses. One lovely extended vacation in London quickly followed by a somewhat less lovely trip to Boston (for actual bill-paying work) cut a serious wedge out of my blogging time. I had left for London with the intention of making regular posts, but I didn't seem to find the time – not to say that there wasn't, I was just unable to overcome the inherent laziness that plagues my existence. Click here for proof that blogging from the road is not only possible, but highly entertaining.

Of all the touristy stuff that I took part in, the one that I was most dubious about beforehand was the Jack the Ripper tour. The idea of taking part in a cattle drive through busy commercial streets while someone barks out historically suspect facts through a battery powered bullhorn filled me with a small measure of dread. But after a recommendation of these folks by several locals, we took the plunge and had a pretty terrific evening. Though very little of the Whitechapel district looks as it did over a century ago, there were a remarkable number of side streets that retained the character – and in some cases, the actual architecture - of 1880s London. Aside from the more macabre historical significance of the area, it was also interesting to see a side of London that was quite different from the typical "Big Ben, Parliament!" regions that most tourists stick to. The Whitechapel of today is a working class, Bangladeshi neighborhood that sits just east of the City of London (the Gherkin looms over nearly the entire area) but seems a million miles away from the fog wrapped streets and eviscerated prostitutes of the Ripper's time. It's a tribute to the folks who run the tour that, for at least a couple of hours, the 21st Century is put on hold and you can pound the same cobblestones as Saucy Jack himself. Unfortunately, my pictures taken on the tour are more shaky that saucy, but I'll post them anyway.

And while I didn't want the trip to be too bogged down with movie location visits, there were several that doubled as legitimate tourism destinations and I was able to add to the itinerary without further beleaguering my patient companion. These steps leading down from the Royal Albert Hall towards the Prince Consort Road have been used in many dozens of films over the years, but I remember them most vividly from The Ipcress File, where Harry Palmer gives a right pasting to a meddlesome bodyguard, and from the Columbo episode "Dagger of the Mind", where the Science Museum Library doubles as a wax museum for the final scene.

Likewise, St Paul's Cathedral had been a familiar site from its own cameo appearances – particularly in the opening scenes of Lawrence of Arabia. The current Cathedral is actually the fourth to occupy this spot (the previous had been destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666) and was designed by Christopher Wren, a name that appears frequently when on an architecturally themed walking tour of London